Reflections on the Death of Our Son
On Saturday, July 16, Luke Gabriel Bird died in a hiking accident in Chile. He was a midshipman in the United States Naval Academy. He is our son. Here are some reflections on his life, his faith, and his Lord.
On Saturday morning, July 16, our son, Luke Gabriel Bird, opened his eyes to his last day in this world. He did not know that, of course, nor did we, nor did anyone else. In this life, punctuated by the unexpected, we sometimes begin our days with a yawn and end them with a sigh. Or a gasp. Or, in my case, a scream.
I got the call that evening around 7:45. After the Naval officer introduced himself and confirmed that I was the father of Luke Bird, he proceeded with the news that undid my world. Luke had been on a hike in the countryside of Chile, where he was studying abroad at that country’s military academy, having just completed his second year as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland.
While on the hike, he and a Chilean student walked near a massive waterfall. Luke was taking pictures. He approached nearer the edge to take a picture. And when he did, he fell.
“He fell.” A simple statement of fact. Two words, six letters. A pronoun and verb. Disarmingly mundane in appearance. Until the “he” is your twenty-one-year-old son. And the “fell” means that never again in this life will you hear his laughter or tell him how incredibly proud you are of him. Never will you watch him smile as he watches the love of his life walk down the aisle or cradle his firstborn in his arms.
Those two words, “he fell,” had just as well be two swords thrust hilt deep into the soul of all those who love Luke.
As of this writing, nineteen days have passed since we heard the awful news. We are deeply grateful to the Valparaiso Firefighters, the V Zone Carabineros, and Naval School in Chile for their tireless efforts to successfully locate Luke’s body. Due to delays in the bureaucratic process in Chile, our son’s body has remained in that country. Our Texas senators, the leadership of the USNA, the American embassy personnel in Chile, and top leadership in the Navy have been shepherding this lengthy and complicated process, for which we are so thankful.
Tomorrow, August 6, the body of our boy is scheduled to arrive back in Texas. After a service in his hometown of New Braunfels, TX, on Monday, August 8, his final funeral and burial will be August 18, on the campus of USNA, a place he loved more than any other location in the world.
Like any parent, my mind is rich with memories of the ordinary and extraordinary times we had together as father and son. Him sitting on my lap as a four-year-old, telling me a silly story and having me type it out on the computer (yes, I still have that). Hiding in a tree blind alongside him as he pulled the trigger to bag his first buck. Cheering him on as he wrestled through high school and served as co-captain of the team. Watching him, as Battalion Commander of the JROTC, lead the singing of the Marines’ hymn. Rich memories, indeed.
I thought I knew my son well—and I did—but, in the wake of his death, hundreds of people have told us stories about Luke that we never knew. How he sacrificed his time to help tutor struggling students at the academy. How he talked fellow midshipmen through bouts of “I just want to quit” until they felt their spirits lift and they pushed through the pain. How he served, probably unbeknownst to him, as what one of his closest friends called “The Guy” that the underclassmen in JROTC wanted to be like.
One friend summed it up well: “Luke was a man before he got to the academy.”
The Porch to the Father’s Home
What Luke accomplished in his short life, the impact he made on countless people, that bearing and aura about him that were simply unmissable—all of these traits make his death a double-edged sword. I am grateful, grateful beyond words, that the Lord used him in such remarkable ways and simultaneously gave him such a humble spirit that, even when he won a prestigious national award, he accepted it with a servant’s heart.
And yet, here we sit, as parents, siblings, family, friends, and even total strangers who are learning about Luke for the first time, asking, “Why? Why, O Lord, snatch from this world a young man with the potential to become a renowned leader? Why, dear God, take from us someone with so much more to give, especially in our world, starving for exemplary men like Luke? Why?”
As always, no matter how many Whys we cast toward heaven, they all ricochet off an iron door that refuses to yield even the smallest of answers. We will never know. And should the Creator of heaven and earth, the Father of Luke, tell us, chances are we still wouldn’t understand.
What we can understand, as Luke’s family and friends, are these truths.
First and most importantly, Luke understood well that this world of ours is but “the porch to the Father’s home,” as George MacDonald calls it. Luke was a baptized, beloved child of God. As a little boy, he and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. As Luke grew up, we knelt beside each other at the Lord’s altar to receive his life-giving body and blood in the Supper. I can remember how, in middle school and high school, he chose to sit in adult Bible Classes that I taught. One of Luke’s fellow midshipmen wrote of him, “When the choice was 2 extra hours of free time on Sunday to fold socks, or church, you chose church every single week.”
Luke may have died on July 16, 2022, but he overcame death many years before on October 29, 2000, when he was baptized into Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life. Our son is safe and at peace in the presence of him who lived, died, and rose again for Luke.
We also understand this about our son: he was, and will remain, the embodiment of what Christians call “a life of love,” that is, a life in which others are first, that what matters is not personal fame but sacrificial service. As president of his senior class, Luke expressed it this way in his graduation speech: “All of your education, your experiences, your training—they were not for you. They were for your future families, your coworkers, your country, and for those you will help support.”
He also said in that same speech, “The most important people in our lives are the ones whom we can look at and say, ‘My life is better because of what you have done for me.’ Be that person.”
Luke was that person. And I, his father, his fellow servant, his brother in Christ, will seek, however falteringly, to do the same.
When the Things I Loved the Most Were Taken
During a wrestling match his senior year of high school, Luke tore his hamstring tendon on his right leg from its pelvic attachment point. That injury not only ended his wrestling career, it also delayed, for a year, his start at the USNA. He himself called that injury, and the painful disappointment that followed, “the most influential event” in his adult life.
Of that event, Luke wrote, “Looking back over the lengthy healing process, I am grateful for all that has been revealed to me. I was able to view everything through a new lens; wrestling, JROTC, and school were no longer the same. I learned to deal with hardship and to stay positive when the things that I loved the most were taken from me.”
“When the things I loved the most were taken from me.” That is where we, his friends and family, are now. A son, grandson, brother, friend, and fellow midshipman has been taken from us. This is a hardship that I have never felt before, a pain deeper than any I have experienced in my fifty-two years.
Yet, as I sit here in my grief, alternately weeping and reminiscing and praying and giving thanks, I ever hold before my eyes the One who will bear me through this hardship, even as he bore my son through his. That one is the Lord in whom Luke trusted, and in whose presence our son is now at peace and awaiting the resurrection. The Lord who, hard as it is to fathom, loves Luke even more than any of us here in this world. The Lord Jesus who stepped out of his grave on the day of his resurrection, with his foot on the throat of death itself.
Jesus is the Champion of life. And in his life, Luke, our beloved son, now truly lives.