Reflections on the loss of Zack

Published 4:49 pm Friday, September 11, 2009

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, it has been one year since our grandson, Zack Wansley, collapsed and died while training for the Thanksgiving Day Marathon in Atlanta.

He was 22.

This was not his first Thanksgiving Day race. If memory serves me correctly, it was his eighth. Zack was an excellent long-distance runner. He had run cross-country at Chapel Hill High School in Douglas County and for a short time was a member of the Georgia Tech cross-country team until he decided that academics had to be his priority.

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Going to Georgia Tech was a humbling experience for someone who had made only A’s throughout grammar school and high school, mostly in advanced courses. When he got to Tech, he discovered everyone there was just as smart, or smarter, than he was. There was no way Zack Wansley was going to fail. He never failed at anything he did and he was not going start at Georgia Tech.

At Chapel Hill, Zack had been all-everything. He was president of the student body, captain of the cross-country team and winner of the Atlanta Journal cup as Outstanding Student his senior year. As a civil engineering major at Tech, he planned to work on environmental issues, a subject of special importance to him.

All who knew him will tell you that he was a special young man with a perpetual smile on his face and a positive attitude about everything and everybody. He was destined to make a difference in the world. His death doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s not supposed to.

Some people may be able to survive a loss like ours without a loving church to support them, but we could not have done it. If I have any criticism of religion is that people sometimes forget what the church is all about. It isn’t about rice wafers and women preachers and soaring cathedrals. It is about loving others. We found out first-hand how much people in our church love us and care about us. It has been a truly humbling experience. Perhaps that is why I am not as angry at God as I thought I would be.

The mind, over time, tends to dim the bad memories and focus you on the good ones. Four months before the tragedy, Zack and I made a trip to Yankee Stadium and to Fenway Park in Boston. It was the most perfect trip a grandfather and grandson could have ever experienced. The fans in those two ball parks treated us like royalty that weekend, flattered that we had come all that way to see their beloved Yankees and Red Sox. Those are the things that I will choose to remember.

I discovered that in writing a weekly column, you develop a personal bond with your readers. The mail I received after last September from people around the state who I have never met and probably never will, was overwhelming in quantity and in kindness. Expressions of sympathy crossed philosophic and demographic boundaries. People who think I am one stone removed from a Neanderthal wrote to comfort me. I will always remember the phone call I received from former Gov. Carl Sanders, my political hero, who has experienced the loss of a grandson himself.

Our daughter, Maribeth, has exhibited a quiet grace and inner strength that hides what has to be unimaginable grief. She has always been inclined to keep her true feelings private. We really don’t know what to say to comfort her except to remind her often how much we love her. But is that enough? Should we be doing more? If so, what?

Which brings me to the most important thing I have learned this past year: There is no playbook on how to handle the loss of a young life so full of promise. There are materials you can read—and I’ve read a lot of them–but nobody can truly tell you how to get through something like this. You just do it. I only know that prayer helps, as do supportive friends and a loving family. And time.

It takes a lot of time.