erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Turns out, I’m a broken person. I’m one of those people, like so many of us, with wounds I don’t even know I have that fester beneath the surface.  Some of them are physical.  Who knows what tears in my ligaments or clogs in my arteries remain unresolved beneath my skin?

But the real tricky wounds are the ones that aren’t physical at all.  Those deep wounds are crippling, inflicted by the hardest pieces of life, and when the symptoms of anxiety or depression rise to the surface, guys like me don’t know what to do.  Tears don’t come, and there are no words to make the wound go away, so I just soldier on, hoping tomorrow will bring a little more sunshine.

One of those hard pieces of life hit me like a sucker punch last June.

Driving through California with my kids, I got a voicemail every teacher dreads.

“Hi Erin, I’ve got some hard news I don’t want to leave on voicemail,” the voice said, starting to tremble, “so please, if you could call me back, I’d appreciate it.”  The message was from my principal.  I called her back immediately, and there was very little small talk.

“Erin, your student Mason from your 5th period class passed away yesterday.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Oh, no” I whispered.  “No, no.”

“I’m sorry, Erin,” she said.

I could see his face in the front row.  When he’d brush aside those long locks of dark brown hair, you could see his eyes, always focused up front, and there was usually a smile.   He seemed to care more than most.

“Was it suicide?” I asked.

“We think so,” she said.

After we said goodbye, the rest of the drive was pretty quiet.  My kids heard the conversation.

“Was he a pretty good kid?” my son asked.

“Yeah, he was a great kid,” I said, still staring out the window.  I kept thinking about the last time I saw him.  He took extra time on his final exam, staring at his test and looking at the wall.  He was back and forth like that for an hour after everyone left, like he was processing something.  Then, I asked if he needed some help with the test or if something else was bothering him.

“No,” he said.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Ahnfeldt, I’ll try to hurry.”

Of course, I told him to take his time, but looking back, I wondered what he would have said if I probed a little more or if I asked him to stay and talk.

Instead, he finished with a smile, like it was totally normal to work an hour longer than everyone else. And as I watched him walk down the hall, he turned around and said, “Hey, Mr. Ahnfeldt, what are you doing?”  He wanted me to say what I had my students say every day after class.

“Listening to life, Mason,” I shouted, “What are you doing?”

“Me too,” he said, and then he walked away.  That was the last time I saw him.

A week after that exam, sitting in the car with my principal’s terrible news, I tried to think as a storm raged inside me.  All that year, Mason and I had built a great relationship.  He asked me how to pray one day, and we set up a lunch to talk about it.  That’s when he told me some of his friends at Culver’s had talked to him about Jesus.  He told me about his dark thoughts, and that his counselor had met with him a number of times.

He even came to Young Life and seemed to like it.  As I type these words, I can still picture him there singing “Lean on Me” in the line of kids, everyone’s arms around each other as they sway back and forth.

To me, the trajectory of his life seemed positive.  The light was pushing through the darkness, and everything good and true was winning.  But then, sitting in the car as my son drove, I stared out at the trees as they passed, and all I felt was defeat.  Like all of us who were trying to make a difference in Mason’s life—his counselor, his parents, Young Life leaders, and his teachers—actually lost.  He was gone, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

There are no easy answers.  I’m sure the lies whispering in his head, lies from the darkest of places, were deafening.  He couldn’t see himself the way so many of us did.  Maybe things could’ve been different if he stayed and talked that last day I saw him.   Maybe not.  People told me (and they’re right) that nobody can blame themselves for what happened.  But that doesn’t keep the questions from growing claws and digging away in the deepest parts of me.

So what did I do?  I prayed for Mason’s family, and I talked to friends at work.  Nobody had answers, but all of us had each other.  And after that?  I turned to the next chapter in my story.  I moved on, all the while completely unaware that there were pieces of me that were still broken—pieces no doctor would know how to put together.  And they festered and bled, crippling me in ways I couldn’t see, until the only One who could see it all, the One writing my story, gave me a seven-hour flight to Calgary I’ll never forget.


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