Kleenex alert: Tale of tragedy, irony and Christianity

It’s not every day that an obituary of a non-celebrity appears above the fold on a major daily newspaper’s front page. Rarer still is the mention, nay prominence, of a faith story unfolding within.

Bryan Marquard, veteran obit writer for the Boston Globe, no doubt did a double take when news of a young couple dying within 46 hours of each other crossed his desk. Marquard began making phone calls, and the result is a poignant piece about life, love and mortality — and an admirable incorporation of symbolic details about the couple’s Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds.

The lede sets the tone nicely:

When Neil Carruthers married Tina Nedelcu three years ago, he knew her funeral might arrive sooner than either wanted. She had already been treated for brain cancer, and had learned anew to talk and walk and coax her lovely voice to sing again in church.

For some, illness puts love on hold. Not Neil. “He said, ‘Mom, you don’t marry someone for their pedigree and you don’t marry them for their health history,’” his mother, Rosanne, recalled. “He told me, ‘Mom, whatever time we have, I want to spend with her.’”

As it turned out, Neil Carruthers had two days less to spend with his bride than either might have imagined. The husband/caregiver collapsed after leaving her bedside and died hours later; the cause of death is still pending an autopsy report. Tina Carruthers succumbed to cancer. Their families eulogized both at a joint service Sept. 28 at their congregation, the Stoneham Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In this story, readers are taken on a journey through Neil Carruthers’ early years at what Marquard labeled a Christian primary school and a Christian university (both of which I discovered online were, more precisely, Seventh-day Adventist institutions), his antics at a Seventh-day Adventist summer camp and how they found each other online at an Adventist dating website. We’re given a glimpse of their heartbreak, with Neil Carruthers reading highlighted passages of scripture from Tina Carruthers’ Bible out loud to her after she lost the ability to speak. And there’s this faith gem, too:

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Faith, family and football for Ole Miss walk-on

When his 37-year-old mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a college football star steps up to care for her and his younger sisters.

But what motivates the young man to put his family’s interests over his own athletic pursuits?

Could it be his faith?

Kudos to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., for an emotional profile of Ole Miss walk-on Derrick “DJ” Wilson that lets the religion angle unfold naturally.

Let’s start at the top:

After his East Mississippi Community College football team went undefeated and won the 2011 junior college championship, star lineman Derrick “DJ” Wilson was offered full athletic scholarships to four-year colleges in Alabama and Louisiana.

But as the football season came to an end, the 2010 Horn Lake High graduate had more important concerns. His mother, Jelks Wilson, was dying of cancer. Wilson was driving home from school every weekend — an eight-hour round-trip — to care for her and his two younger sisters.

Wilson would wake to the sounds of his mother’s soft mumbling. Straining to hear, he realized she was praying.

“It would be 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Wilson, now 21. “When you are asleep, half the time you don’t know what is going on. I would be saying to myself: I wish she would be quiet. After I realized what was going on, there was nothing I could say.

“I would just go in there and listen to her pray. She would want to hold hands. We would sit in the room. We would talk about what God had done for us. The way she raised me was go to church, make sure you believe in God, and make sure you honor God.”

At GetReligion, one of our mantras is that mainstream news stories should reflect the crucial role that religious faith often plays in the lives of ordinary people. Another of our mantras is that news organizations should allow believers to explain their faith in their own words.

Read the whole story, and see if you don’t agree that the Memphis newspaper mostly succeeds on both counts.

If not for the final three paragraphs, I might have rendered a different verdict. But the ending encapsulates the young man’s faith:

Now that his mother is gone, Wilson compartmentalizes her death. Too much is on his plate even now to grieve. He relies on his faith to get him through the days. The nights are often the hardest.

Wilson sleeps with a colorful quilt his mother gave him as a child. “It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I refuse to not sleep with it,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be here without God. It’s just so amazing what He can bring you through,” he added. “He said He would never forsake us or fail us. I knew what was going on wasn’t a mistake. When He called her home, I just knew He wanted his daughter to be with Him and not on Earth. That’s what brought me through it and comforted me and why I didn’t go crazy.”

I’m not suggesting this is a perfect story. I found myself wishing for elaboration at certain points, such as when Wilson’s junior college coach described him as a “powerful soul.” What exactly did the coach mean?

Similarly, when the story notes that Wilson led fellow players in a devotional before the championship game, I wanted to know more about the devotional. What was said? Did they read Scriptures? Did they pray? Was this a new ritual or a routine one for Wilson and his teammates?

Nonetheless, I was pleased overall that The Commercial Appeal avoided the holy ghosts that haunt so many stories of this nature.

P.S. Two types of GR posts typically draw no comments at all: Positive posts and sports-related posts. May tmatt find it in his heart to forgive me for this doubly cursed post.

Image via Shutterstock