The Light Shining Down

She would have been an ebullient 7-year old girl right now. With her joyous eyes and her jovial character, I can visualize her standing right here in my room as a beacon of innocent light, flashing a smile that could warm even the coldest of human hearts.

She was the embodiment of childhood innocence framed in sweet happiness.

I say “would have been”, if the SUV that ran into her had waited just five more seconds before backing out of the driveway and proceeding down the block.

My niece Rachel was struck and killed by that SUV on June 6, 2002. The youngest child of my younger sister Jennifer and her husband Justin, she was hit in the street right in front of her house. She had followed her older brother Austin from the backyard, wanting to see what he was up to at the neighbor’s house.

Her father, a seasoned paramedic, was able to revive her temporarily but unable to work the kinds of miracles only the hands of God can perform.

She died, one week shy of her fourth birthday. If you have ever lost a loved one, especially a child, you know that when they pass away a part of you does as well.

Nothing can hold a candle to the suffocating grief of not only losing a family member, but the empathic bridge of hurting for one of your siblings and other family members as they walk the roads of life in their darkest hours.

There have been days when I would have traded my life in a heartbeat, if it meant we could have her back. There have been days when I would have given an arm, if it meant that the burden of oppressive grief could be lifted from my sister, her husband and my nephew.

But life has a way of reaching out to us when we need it most. It just so happened that a few months after Rachel’s death, the 2002 NFL football season began. That season I rediscovered my love for the Seattle Seahawks - not that it ever left me – it’s just that I clutched onto it more.

When you experience a tragedy, you find something – anything – to latch onto, something that reduces the cascading wall of misery. For me, outside of the incredible love and support from our extended family, my faith, my wife, and my friends - it was football.

That 2002 Seahawks season was literally a “God send” for me. Immersing myself in that cathartic and enjoyable experience, I could at least look forward to the crisp autumn days of fall when the Seahawks played. That gave me a three-hour reprieve from the constant mental crush of wondering why in a world colored in such bright hues, we still have to deal with darkness.

That version of the Seahawks became a very entertaining team. The offense developed into a top-flight unit, racking up huge numbers down the stretch. Our young gunslinger, Matt Hasselbeck, started looking like anything other than the deer in the stadium lights to which we had become accustomed

I took my father and some close family friends to the first-ever game at Seahawks Stadium. Even though the Seahawks lost to the Cardinals on that day, just seeing happiness spread across their faces – after months of intolerable anguish – meant more to me than a victory.

The sights, the sounds and the smells of a live NFL game allowed us to hang our sorrows in suspended animation, like an old suit we wanted to hide in the back of the closet.

My memory bank skips some data points from that period. To this day, I don’t remember more than a scant few details of the minutes following the news all the way through Rachel’s burial.

The facts are there, of course – I boarded a plane in Norfolk, Virginia, first thing the next morning after hearing the news, and I flew to Portland, Oregon, where my sister and parents reside. I can’t tell you what I ate, what movie was on the flight, or how many times in my head I conceded that I would never get to smile at my niece again.

The scorched days of summer that followed were pretty much the same. Details are sketchy.

But I can easily recall that first game at Seahawks Stadium, in early September. Watching an unknown running back gash the Seahawks defense reminded me that life certainly goes on.

Maybe that’s what it means for all of us who consider ourselves true fans of a team. Maybe there is so much more to it beneath the surface, more than just the enjoyment of the game. I often stop and think about why I am so connected to this team, and how it occupies a considerable part of my soul.

When I watch the Seahawks, my spirits are lifted both in victory and in defeat. My inner-self is picked up on the loving winds of an angel’s wings. As I engage in my game day routine – Seahawks jersey, something tasty to grill, cold beer - I establish a connection with Rachel, to let her know that it’s our special time again.

Perhaps it’s just because the 2002 Seahawks season was a form of salvation from my pain. The battle simplicity of a football game reached out to me again, a tactical diagram of X’s and O’s contrasted with not having to answer to my own children impossibly tough questions, such as “but when is our cousin Rachel coming back?”

Rachel may be gone, but she has never left.

Sometimes I can feel her sitting on the couch with me, cheering on my team. It feels so real, that I have slipped and asked her to pass the corn chips a few times. Her presence helps take the sting out of the toughest losses, to remind me at the end of the day it is just a sport - it’s not worth blowing a gasket over.

I have racked my brain a million times, trying to understand how my sister, her husband and my nephew find the strength to shoulder the lifelong burden of their loss. Some say that time heals all wounds, but I don’t believe that. I think it dulls the pain some, but I don’t think those wounds ever heal. A loss like that is a mortal injury to the heart.

But all around us, there are facets of life we can enjoy to help remind us of the inherent good in our lives. So football is not just a game to me, it’s a mental raft in which I load all my hurt and confusion to send floating down the river banks.

Leaves fall silently as I stare out behind windowpanes frosted by the early morning chill of autumn. No matter how dark it gets, I can always find the light shining down. It’s football Sunday!

Hey Rachel, can you believe the end of that game against the Cowboys?

Greg Renick writes regularly for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories