Four funerals and a wedding

march 5Reaching the 57th floor of my existence hasn’t been the smoothest elevator ride. Sure, there have been plenty of floors that have passed without a worry. Then, there are those rides where I’ve ascended too fast, dropped a few floors, stalled, rumbled, rattled, and limped toward my destination. On recent rides, one particular date seems to bring a either a dramatic rise, or a heart stopping fall.

March 5th.

On March 5, 2011, my father passed away after a lengthy fight with prostate cancer.

March 5, 2016, is the day my middle child married the man of her dreams.

Now comes March 5, 2017. Another ear piercing drop.

Gary Rothwell and I became best buddies when we were 5-years-old. My father accepted a new job at the University of Florida midway through the school year, so I was a late arrival at P.Y. Yonge, a rather eye opening and tolerant institution just a pebble’s throw from the famous graffiti covered wall on Highway 441 in Gainesville, Florida. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher introduced me to the class.

“Children, this is Jerry.”

Gary Rothwell was one of the first to greet me.

“Hey,” exclaimed one of our classmates. “Jerry and Gary. That rhymes.”

After that, Gary and I were inseparable. I say that, but there were plenty of teachers over the years who did their best to separate us. I was a rambunctious child, and Gary was my go-to partner in mischief. We were constantly scheming to keep the school entertained, or at the very least, keep ourselves entertained. We were class clowns, the self-appointed merry pranksters. We never broke the law, but I imagine we caused more than a few teachers to regret their career choice.

It’s a friendship that has transcended graduation and adulthood. So, when March 5, 2011, arrived, Gary went out of his way to attend my father’s funeral. Likewise, when Gary’s mother passed away on March 5, 2017, I planned a trip back home to my beloved Gainesville, Florida.

To make the journey, I would need a day off of work. We, meaning WXIA-TV, were already shorthanded,  so I would need to labor beyond my normal hours to accommodate my absence. No one gave me that directive. I came up with it all on my own. I mentioned something to that effect to Gary, who clearly noticed my hurried, anxious tone. He responded with a statement as wise as King Solomon.

“Do what you need to do,” Gary quipped. “But it’s not like they can’t do without you.”

There are moments when I am actually arrogant enough to think the world of television news just can’t possibly survive a moment without me. My priorities run amuck, leading to long days and long absences from home that end with my brain still pounding with the call of unfinished tasks. My loved ones patiently wait their turn as I’m consumed with the self-imposed demands of a world that only cares for me when I give mile after extra mile.

Gary’s message was clear. He wanted and needed my company and my comfort. There’s no way to measure the accomplishment of simply being at his side for a few hours in his time of mourning. No one waiting on my “to do” list was upset when I informed them why their issue would have to wait until the following week. It’s not like Atlanta isn’t filled with capable news reporters ready and willing to fill my void, and quite adequately. No one’s television screen went dark during my absence. No one yearned for my increasingly gray locks. No one complained that their morning passed without the sound of my familiar yet mediocre voice.

Also waiting for me in my hometown was my mother. The loss of my father six years ago has left quite a void on NW 24th Way. She recently endured hip replacement surgery, and isn’t getting around quite as easily as she once did. I can’t fill the hole left by the departure of my well accomplished dad, but two days spent by my mom’s side, reminiscing, watching basketball, treating each other to dinner and a movie, are more valuable than any breaking news coverage, more treasured than twenty Emmy awards.

It’s a lesson I need to remember every single day. My hand can do more good holding  my wife in prayer than it can writing a million news stories. My voice is more valuable telling my children, “I love you,” than it is reminding Atlanta of its most serious traffic issues.

It’s not that my job is unimportant. I don’t plan to stop giving my all at work. I’m far too obsessive. But as funerals and weddings (I got an invitation to another today, the daughter of a friend) appear at the elevator door more frequently, I need to be more aware of the value of my attention. No tweeting when my wife wants to talk. No sneaking around to text when I’m supposed to be helping her with her Bible study. No drifting off to plan the rest of my week when friends, loved ones, or neighbors need my ear.

You never know when it might be someone else’s March 5th.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take this call from my daughter. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, it’s because I’m on the phone with my mom.

Forgive me.

The elevator is rising toward the 58th floor.

I’d love it to be a smooth ride, but it’s not likely. So, may the doors open to ways I can make that ride a little easier for someone else.

 

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The heart of darkness

Twitter is giving 2016 a harsh goodbye. Facebook, too. Everywhere I look, the brokenhearted are eager to rip December out of their virtual calendar and start anew.

I understand2017. This will not go down as one of my favorite years. 2016 is the multi-car pile up that ruins a trip to the beach. I survived with a badly damaged hood, scrapes along the front panel, dragging my back bumper toward 2017. At least I have insurance that come in the form of loving friends and family. I’m going to have to change four flat tires and rebuild my engine before I can finish that trip to the beach, but I’ll make it. There is sunlight at the edge of darkness.

It’s not really 2016’s fault. The year itself didn’t participate in vitriolic political debates, didn’t end the life of a single celebrity, nor did it take part in any of the mass shootings around the world. 2016 arrived like a fresh set of downs for a struggling offense. It offered optimism, hope, another chance. It’s crazy to think an altered number on our daily planner will erase our problems, but there’s a feeling that comes with the segue from December to January. It’s almost like the champagne and fireworks are delivered with a reset button. Push it, and life is good again.

I had that kind of optimism when 2016 awoke.

The first part of the year was pure bliss. My daughter was married in March. I danced on clouds, breathing thin air, as lightheaded as a circus balloon. Unfortunately, when the clouds began to dissipate, I didn’t have the legs to provide a solid landing.

Heartbreak came in waves.

There was the car wreck that ended a young life, a member of our church youth group, a friend of our daughter, the child of my own friends.

There is the tragedy and confusion that descended on other dear friends as harmful influences imbedded its toxic fangs in their son.

The brother of a young girl I’d mentored at church died in a motorcycle accident.

More recently, we received news that my sister’s latest cancer treatment has failed, dragging her back to the cruelty of chemotherapy as the tumors on her liver spread.

With all of that hanging over me, I wasn’t prepared for the sucker punch, delivered beneath my appendix scar, that sparked a series of confusing events that are too personal and painful to detail here. It sent me spiraling into the depths of uncertainty and depression. For days, I walked around in an Alaska winter, with moments of light covered by immense darkness.

I’m doing my best to focus on that light.

It would be foolish of me to sit in a dark corner and sulk. That would mean ignoring all of the bright, beautiful blessings that rained down upon me in 2016. It would mean turning my back on a God who is always there, holding a lantern to guide me away from gloom and misery. It would mean licking my wounds while friends and family who have faced far greater challenges over the past year stand strong. For my sister Nancy, 2016 was the pitbull that grabbed her in its powerful jaws and shook her like a stuffed toy. The cancer marches through her body, leaving painful footprints. The treatments leave her weak and disappointed. And yet, she finds the strength to smile. The harder cancer works to extinguish her light, the more Nancy shines.

How can I let my stupid little pitiful problems drag me down when I see perseverance like that?

Nothing grows well in darkness except anger and resentment. With the help of God’s light, I can see my way toward forgiveness. If I can’t heal and forgive, then I can’t expect others to forgive me for my indiscretions.

If I can’t move on from my own petty problems, I can’t be there for the people who need my love and support through their more significant struggles.

Rather than looking upon the negatives of 2016, perhaps I should be thankful for the opportunities to love, comfort, forgive, to mature and grow closer to a God who dearly wants me strong and happy.

2016, you are forgiven.

In fact, thank you. Thank you for shining a bright light on the many blessings that trump any of my difficulties, for encouraging me to tend to the needs of others, and for forcing me to realize God must come first, ahead of my own selfish desires. I can’t thank you for the difficulties you imposed on my friends and family, for they continue to struggle. But I can thank you for opening my eyes to the absolute need to focus on them, not me.

The calendar isn’t all that needs to change.

I need to change, too.

 

Roadside assistance

heard county deputyOn a rural Georgia road, covered by nightfall, comes a powerful beam of light that cuts through the darkness of hatred and misunderstanding.

A Heard County Sheriff’s Deputy was doing his job when he observed a young man ignoring a stop sign. In law enforcement, there’s no such thing as routine. An innocuous traffic violation performed by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can cause a situation to go south in a real hurry. The deputy in this situation didn’t know if the driver he stopped was an innocent teenager who wasn’t paying attention, or an escaped convict with a taste for blood. The deputy stepped forward with his hand on his service pistol, completely unaware that he was moving toward an encounter that just might change his life forever.

Consider, for a moment, the current state of affairs for anyone wearing a badge. Officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are dead because of the anger over shootings that had nothing to do with them. Some people, not all, but some have indicted an entire profession because of the actions of a few. It’s not fair. It’s like destroying an entire orchard because of the worms found in two apples. It is but another example of hatred run amok. Nothing good comes of hate.

That Heard County Deputy had no way of knowing if he would be the next target.

Then it happened. Another car arrived. Two people got out and walked toward the deputy. He tensed.

“I immediately start running situations through my head, and praying for the best,” the deputy wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m nervous, and praying to God that nothing is going to happen.”

One of the people approaching the deputy identified himself of the father the young man the deputy had stopped. Papa Bear had arrived to protect Baby Bear, always a potentially volatile situation.

“That’s my boy,” he told the deputy. “I just want to make sure everything’s okay.”

The deputy calmly informed the man that his son was going to get a warning for running the stop sign. What happened next came straight from all that is pure and good.

“God bless you,” the man told the deputy. “I just appreciate everything you do.”

The man went on to tell the deputy that he was on his way to the hospital to visit his father, who had just suffered a stroke. Then he reached for the deputy’s hand.

“Do you have a minute? I’d just like to say a word of prayer.”

Right there, on the side of that dark Heard County road, a man whose father had just suffered a stroke stopped to offer compassion to a complete stranger, to a deputy who’d just interrupted his trip to visit a loved one.

“Lord, keep this man and his fellow officers safe as they’re out here trying to keep us safe,” the man prayed, all of it captured on the deputy’s dashboard camera.

The prayer ended with a hug.

“As he prayed for me and my brothers in blue, my eyes filled with tears,” the deputy wrote. “This man, with all he had going on, stopped to pray for me. As I walked away, I was in total shock.”

Think of that. The deputy was in shock that someone would pause to express appreciation for his commitment to protecting others.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers leave their homes for a day’s work, unsure if they’ll make it back to their families. They’re sassed, disrespected, and cussed for doing their job. They’re not perfect. None of us are. There are a few who have allowed the power of the badge go to their heads, resulting in horrible decisions. But the overwhelming majority of officers I’ve known are good people with a genuine heart for protecting the rest of us. Still, it’s a job where they’re more likely to hear a threat than a thank you.

This doesn’t have to be about law enforcement officers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about prayer. It’s about bringing peace to a troubled world. It’s about lifting your neighbor when they’re down.

Imagine you work for a business that’s struggling. You’ve said goodbye to co-workers forced out by layoffs. You have no idea if the next pink slip is bound for your in-box. You’re on a sales call, stressed over the added pressure, when a customer, a total stranger, offers you comfort and understanding. It might not erase all of your woes, but the pressure might not seem as overwhelming. Your outlook might not appear quite so dark.

Despite all of the marches, the protests, the pain, and the doubt, that officer in Heard County now knows at least one man cares.

On a rural road covered by darkness, there is light.

 

Nice to meet you, Sen. Shealy

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 3.01.27 PMI don’t know Katrina Frye Shealy, and she doesn’t know me.

I think it’s time we got acquainted.

In the face of the violence and discord that currently plagues our country, the state senator from South Carolina has suggested that, more than likely, members of the media are our nation’s biggest problem. People in my line of work, in Sen. Shealy’s own words, sensationalize everything. We stir the pot. We fuel a blazing fire. Silencing us for a month, she believes, might make our world a better place.

On Facebook, her supporters have referred to news reporters as “the enemy.”

I have to wonder if Sen. Shealy actually knows anyone involved in the media. I’m not talking about knowing them on a working level. I wonder if she’s familiar with the true heart and motivation of anyone who works in my business.

Sen. Shealy, let me introduce myself.

My name is Jerry Carnes. I’ve been a news reporter for more than thirty years. I am a child of the south, raised by Southern Baptists who taught me to work hard, love God, and to respect others. My father grew up in poverty, but worked hard to become an Olympic track coach. My mother had to overcome the scars of abandonment inflicted by a rather cruel father. She is the single strongest woman I’ve ever known.

Most of all, my parents taught me about humility. It is why I lean heavily on the words of the Apostle Paul:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourself.

I have witnessed more than most people ever should. I saw a man die in the electric chair. I arrived too early to a crime scene to find an infant lying in the street, shot to death by her own father. These are images that stay with you for a lifetime.

I know grief. I lost my father to cancer in 2011. It is a loss that has left a giant crater in my heart. I lost a cousin to the war in Iraq. This year alone, my church youth group has lost two of its members to tragedy. These are tender young lives who once called me their Sunday school teacher. I went on mission trips with them. Time and time again, my heart breaks.

It has made me more sympathetic to the pain of others. Over the past thirty years, I’ve talked to scores of people who have suffered from senseless tragedy. I’ve served as both reporter and counselor. There have been many times when the talking has gone on long after the camera was turned off. I do all I can do to lighten their burden rather than add to it. For thirty years, I’ve carried home the weight of second hand grief. It is the strength of God that keeps that weight from crushing me.

I am a natural born storyteller. That’s why I got into the business. Reporting has given me opportunities to shed light on wrongdoing, to give a voice to the voiceless. My favorite moments, however, have come when allowed to share stories of human triumph. I will never forget the uplifting bond created between a young lady who survived a plane crash, and the elderly couple who ran to her aid. The couple lived near the Carroll County cornfield where the plane erupted into a ball of fire. I met them at the hospital, where they remained at the young girl’s bedside until she’d healed enough to return home. By then, they were practically family. Out of incredible tragedy, love and compassion appeared. Good came from bad.

My years in television news have taught me that, at times, the presence of a camera can add to hostility or pain. As a veteran, I’ve learned to recognize the need to shed light on a moment, and the need to go dark.

Violence, hatred, and prejudice of any kind breaks my heart. I mourn often. I’ve mourned more this year, it seems, than ever before. I weep when I see our country torn apart in disagreement over how to end the rash of hatred. When others hurt, I hurt. I also have faith that we will rise again, stronger than ever.

I have been married for 31 years. My wife is an artist who runs her own business from our home. We have three children. Our oldest is married. He works for a non-profit and volunteers as the social media director of his church. Our middle child is a nurse. She is also married. Her husband works as an audio engineer for a church in Charlotte. Our youngest is about to leave home for college, where she plans to prepare for a career as a special education teacher. I’m immensely proud of them all.

Sen. Shealy, I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes during my long career in this business, and I beg your forgiveness. Working as a news reporter carries with it incredible responsibility. I know there have been times when I’ve taken that responsibility too lightly. I’m human, and that’s my point here. When you refer to the “media,” you’re not talking about a giant ogre that needs to be slain. We are individuals. Each and every one of us has a heart that has been molded by individual experiences. Each of us has our own faults and stumbles. Each of us, as individuals, deal with our own failures.

Now that you know something about me, I hope you’ll see that I would never intentionally sensationalize anything, or purposely throw fuel on a fire. Compassion is a driving force behind my work, which is why I devote so many hours warning others about the risks of prostate cancer. It’s the disease that took my father. Oh, I am not remarkable, by the way. Not by any means. There are plenty of reporters who have seen more than me, endured much worse, and learned a lot more. There are journalists who are much smarter and far more compassionate. I can introduce you to some reporters who would really impress you with the many ways that they’ve bettered the world. If you got to know them, you wouldn’t want to silence them for a half-second, much less a month.

I can get better at what I do. No question about it. We can all do better. But I think it would be a huge mistake to silence us. Yes, we do sometimes throw light on issues that make us uncomfortable. Extinguishing that light, even for a month, would leave us all in the dark. With all respect, I pray that you would consider that.

It was nice to meet you.

 

The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.