Tuesday, July 31, 2007

To Derek

I saw the look on your face this noontime. Shame. A little bit of fear.

But mostly weariness.

Life's just got you beaten down, doesn't it? A girlfriend, a child, a back surgery, a lost job, and suddenly you're scraping by trying to make ends meet working at close to minimum wage for a day labor firm. The kind of place that pays you daily.

They pay you in cash, don't they? They're probably doing it to get around employer taxes. But that's not my concern. Nor is it yours.

Your concern is keeping food on the table and a roof over your head.

I recognized that look on your face today, Derek. I heard the echoes of my own voice in yours--saw my own younger visage in you. When the noontime sun hit your face just right, I saw myself, ten years ago, looking back at me.

I heard your apologies. You weren't following that closely behind the car. Who would have thought everyone would come to a stop so quickly? You've been beside yourself all morning thinking of the trouble you put my wife through when you rear-ended her Grand Prix on the way to work. You're so thankful she's okay and that our car isn't too damaged (though thanks to the marvels of modern automaking, an entirely new rear bumper and paint job is probably in order, just to fix a few bumps and dents and a little piece torn underneath).

And you wish to God that you had paid your insurance premium last month.

Yes, you paid it at 11:15 this morning. But the accident was a little before 8. And you're scared. You're scared of the ramifications of all of this. You assure me time and time again that you want to do the right thing. That you want to make sure my wife and I are taken care of. And that you're willing to do whatever it takes--sell off your car even--to do right by us.

I watch my own weary face from ten years ago in yours as you float an idea to me. You've thought about this, you tell me. And maybe the best thing to do is to tell the insurance companies tonight, when we file our claims, that the accident happened over lunch. Like, say, 11:16 or later. That way I can get my car fixed right away and have it paid for without having to wait for you to pay me back in small installments over time, because there's no way you can afford the thousand dollar or so lump-sum a new bumper and paint are going to cost. It would help me, you say, and help you too at the same time.

I watch your weary face go ashen as I tell you that's an idea I can't go along with. One doesn't go about "doing the right thing" by committing insurance fraud. I tell you that straight out, and I say it a little bit hard. Intentionally. I can tell you're a good kid. I can tell you're a fundamentally good person who has fallen on hard times--whether your fault or not, I don't know and it doesn't really matter--and I don't want to see you in a worse position by making a big mistake that seems like such a little white lie.

You know what they say about the road to hell, don't you, Derek? Paved with good intentions.

Ten years ago, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a roach-infested apartment in a part of town folks don't generally go after dark, unless they're looking for drugs or prostitutes. I was a college graduate who was thousands of dollars in debt and working for $6 an hour driving a van for a day care facility. Part of my predicament was my own fault--a large part of it was. Part of it was just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Like your situation, how I got there wasn't nearly as important as the fact that I was there at all.

After paying rent and my share of the utilities, I had very little left over. And I had collection agents calling. One day I had to borrow money from my girlfriend so that my car wouldn't be reposessed by a company that was charging me 30% interest on a loan. I had been given literally hours to come up with the money or lose my car.

Turns out I lost the car anyway. Not long after that episode, it was parked on the street overnight (my apartment had only one off-street parking spot, and my roommate and I took turns using that precious spot) and I was awakened at 3 in the morning by a huge crash. A 17 year old kid, high on meth, had plowed through my car...and had taken out two other cars...and a street sign...while driving a pickup truck he had stolen from his grandfather.

This was at 3 AM. I was supposed to be at work at 5. There were kids to be picked up. There were parents counting on me to be able to get themselves to work.

Oh, and a small detail--like you, Derek, I wished to God that I had paid my insurance premium the previous month. Or the month before. In fact, just the previous day, I had received that dreaded yet inevitable letter from my insurance company telling me that my policy had expired due to nonpayment. And do you think the kid's, or the grandpa's, insurance company was about to cover an accident in a stolen vehicle operated by someone under the influence of an illegal drug? Not so much.

I know your weariness, Derek. I know the feeling of defeat. I know what it's like to work and work and work, only to fall further and further behind.

That's one of the reasons I pushed you so hard today. There's no doubt in my mind that you'll make things right for my wife and I. If it takes years, I know you'll do it. But Derek, I want you to do it right. No shortcuts. No trying to pull others into the possibility of getting in trouble themselves by lying about the time of an accident. I know the temptation. Don't think I wasn't tempted myself today. In a lot of ways, it would have been a lot easier if we had "agreed" that the accident had actually happened in the afternoon.

But Derek, doing the right thing isn't always easy. And doing the easy thing doesn't always lead to a happy ending.

My story has a happy ending. I called my insurance company and explained my situation. I paid my policy current, and they decided to cover my claim. I had to pay a deductible, but when one is dealing with a totaled car, a $100 deductible is a piece of cake.

And about 6 months later, I received a $100 refund. My company's lawyers had convinced the other company's lawyers to cover the claim. No deductible necessary.

And over time, with a hell of a lot of hard work and a little bit of help, I slowly pulled myself out of debt. It wasn't easy. I ate a lot of mac and cheese and peanut butter sandwiches in the process. But I'll be damned if I didn't get back on my feet.

You'll get there too, Derek. I can tell. I can tell because you've got heart. You're weary, you're beaten down, but there's a heart beating in there that's strong and defiant and proud. It's a heart that didn't run away from responsibility this morning. It's a heart that wants to do good for the benefit of others. I see my ten-years-ago-23-year-old-heart beating in you.

You offered on the phone tonight to cover my deductible payment if I end up having to file through my own company. If that's the way it happens, I do intend to take you up on that offer. I wish I could afford to write it off--if this was a movie, that's how it would happen--but with a child of my own and another one on the way (by the way, I'm glad you don't know that little tidbit, that my wife is 9 weeks pregnant...I don't think you could handle that much more guilt), I don't have that luxury. I'm praying that your insurance company gives you the same gift mine gave me ten years ago...

...the gift of grace.

Derek, keep on keepin' on. You're in my prayers, buddy. May God somehow use your despair over the events of today for good.



Rev Scott said...

Wow. Holy s$%t. So thankful all is well.

And powerful, too. Been there, done that. We weren't as close then as we should have been - friends should help more.

Someday, Derek will be thankful for what you've done.

As your favorite HP character said, there is always a choice "between what is right and what is easy."

David said...

Wow, that is a powerful message for lots of folks. Great post.

I have enjoyed reading your blog and comments on blogs we both visit. I will be adding you to my blogroll if you don't mind. Perhaps others will find you as well.

Leah Sophia said...

Beautiful, thank you--I came over here looking for a Friday Five, but I've already read a bunch of those, so this was better.

LutheranHusker said...

Rev Scott--you're right...we weren't as close back then, and honestly even if we had been, there may very well have been no way for you to know anything that was happening. I put on a good face for everyone else, close friends included.

Oh the changes time brings with it, eh?

cpclergymama said...

An amazing story. It is a wonderful reminder that the easy way out is not always the best way.

cpclergymama said...

A great story. A wonderful reminder that the easy way out is not always the best way. Blessing to you, your wife, and children, and of corse to the young man.

the reverend mommy said...

Beautiful writing.

Deb said...

tough stuff.. one of those days you'd like to get a do-over on... Glad you are OK, even if the car is not... and I know you are impacting Derek's life in ways that you can only guess...


Lorna (see through faith) said...


If you can - send him a copy of this. It might come across as a bit sanctimonious - a sort of pull up your socks I did - but it could make all the difference - in fact I think running into you already did that.