In the days after my mom had her stroke on Oct. 18, 1991, I searched for answers to my personal situation by reading the Book of Job in the Bible. I didn’t find the answers that I was looking for, but I did get a little help that brought a smile to my face. On one morning at 2 or 3 a.m., after a long five-hour drive from Claysville, Pa., to Bluefield when I was too wound up to sleep, I realized I had been searching for relief instead of asking God for strength. All of us have burdens to bear, but faith is a mighty powerful tool to help deal with any challenge.
After I made that early morning realization, I knew I had my work cut out for me on my next trip to Claysville. Mom was at the Presbyterian Health Care Center in Washington, Pa., and she was struggling to communicate. I bought a pack of note cards and printed different words on them to help her communicate. I also bought a pack of spelling flash cards to help her. However, a skilled speech therapist was already teaching mom how to form her words in a different way, and mom was working hard to get back as much of her pre-stroke abilities as she could.
I was surprised how well things were going with mom, and the Saturday afternoon before I was planning to drive back to Bluefield, I went back to our house in Claysville to rake the leaves. We had a big old maple tree in the front yard that was a prolific leaf producer, but I had done that job many times and knew the drill. On that particular beautiful fall afternoon, a young boy from next door came up and asked me if I needed help. He was a little more than six years old at the time, but he knew how to work a rake.
We didn’t talk much, but the work went faster because he was there. His dad, Joe Kennedy, was in my high school graduating class. Joe was hauling steel for the same company I pulled for — Ace Doran — although we weren’t on the road at the same time. Joe’s son, Nathan Kennedy, impressed me because he worked as hard as any adult and concentrated on the task at hand.
The entire Kennedy family had been our rock and foundation through the tragedy of my sister Peggy’s death with cancer in 1990, and my brother Stu’s cancer death three months before mom’s stroke. Peggy and Penny Kennedy, Joe’s wife, were close friends. Penny and Joe were a blessing to us, but their children were blessings as well. Mom remembers that Penny was concerned that she couldn’t have children at all because of her diabetes, but when she went to the doctor, she was already pregnant with Natalie. After Natalie was born, Penny wanted to find out if she could have any more children, and when she went to ask the doctor, she was pregnant with twins — Nathan and his sister, Noelle. A short time after that, their fourth child, Niles, came along too. Mom thinks I ought to write a book about the miracles in their family and how close Joe and Penny were through it all.
Penny and Joe maintained that closeness even after Peggy passed away. They helped me every trip I made to Claysville during that difficult time. After mom’s stroke, Joe offered to help me board up the house, but I said I wanted to keep it as close to how it was when she had her stroke to give her incentive to keep working hard. Joe understood. His friendship was unwavering.
I received a letter last week from one of our friends in Claysville. Because of the way I was working with the elections and everything else, I didn’t have a chance to read it to mom until last Wednesday. The letter contained several newspaper clippings about a soldier from Claysville being killed in action in Afghanistan. I didn’t make an immediate connection between Sgt. Nathan P. Kennedy, 24, of Claysville, who was killed in action on April 27, and the little kid who helped me rake leaves that one day. When the reality set in, it was hard to believe.
My world had changed so much, that I missed Nathan’s accomplishments. He was a three-time sectional wrestling champion at McGuffey High School, and on one of those years, he won the WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League) championship. He graduated in 2004, was a U.S. Army Ranger who had completed one tour in Iraq and had been in Afghanistan for almost a year. Thousands of people attended his funeral service in Claysville on Mother’s Day. He was buried next to his mother who passed away 9 years ago. I hadn’t seen him since Memorial Day 2002 when mom and I were on the sidewalk, watching the annual parade in Claysville.
This week, I finally realized that Nathan had been the answer to my prayer that God would give me strength to deal with the challenges I faced back then. Watching him work quietly without saying a word made me smile, and reminded me of how I had worked beside my Uncle Butch Fry to cut and clear an old poplar tree in the front yard of our farm after my dad had his massive heart attack. Words can’t express the sympathy I have for the Kennedy family for their loss, but I do thank God for sending Nathan to me one afternoon as an answer to my prayer when I really needed it, even though it has taken me all this time to fully comprehend God’s answer. Nathan gave his life so that I can be free.
Bill Archer is the Daily Telegraph’s senior editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org