On the Life of My Friend
For he, indeed, who looks into the face of a friend beholds, as it were, a copy of himself. Thus the absent are present, the poor are rich, and the weak are strong, and—what seems stranger still—the dead are alive, such is the honor, the enduring remembrance, the longing love, with which the dying are followed by the living.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
My friend died today, not by natural causes or an accident of fate but by the most unnatural reason and least accidental manner. My friend died by his own hand. He battled the demon of depression. When I visited him and his lovely wife Diane in Alaska he told me of his struggle. We drove a few miles out of Anchorage and were hiking the hills in the early morning when he made his confession. I was one of the very few he told—a burden I was privileged to help him carry. He had spoken with a counselor and was in a good place emotionally and spiritually.
He was a respected and talented architect, married to a woman who took his breath away. Men often joke among themselves that the women they marry are always above their pay grade. My friend would chuckle whenever I reminded him of this fact. But there was something behind his eyes that belied his laughter. He knew he was reaching for the stars when he married Diane. She was to him not only his lover and friend, she was light and life—a lifeline for a troubled spirit he kept hidden behind the curtain of a ready smile and an easy manner.
I knew of some of the demons that clawed and chewed at his soul. What I didn’t know was that those same self savages had slithered into the depths of his heart and mind in the final weeks of his life. He stopped taking his medication and surrendered to their screeching voices. Jesus said the devil is a liar and murderer. “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” In his last days, my friend was possessed, not with demonic spirits but with the demonic lie that says life is not worth the living.
It was not alway so with him.
We met in the second grade at Bullock Elementary in Garland, Texas. We sat next to each other—two towheaded kids. He spoke first, “Hi, my name is Randy Peck.” The spark of friendship had been kindled; a friendship lasting five decades.
I can’t swear it wasn’t Randy who encouraged our friend Harry Burkhead, who was born without eyes, to take out his glass eye and roll it to the front of the classroom to scare our teacher, but I can swear Randy and I rolled with laughter as that marbled eye rolled past. The joke didn’t have the desired effect on the teacher, but it did on the girls. Our teacher simply picked up the dust covered eye and told Harry to wash it off and put it back in his head.
I will never forget the evening, we were perhaps in the fifth or sixth grade, when Randy told me his parents were getting divorced. Until that night, I never knew anyone whose parents weren’t married. It was confusing for us both; devastating to him alone. I’m sure that was a driving factor to his driven personality. Never in my memory, except perhaps my earliest memories, do I recall a time when Randy did not work. By the time we were in high school Randy had already stepped into the shoes of being the man of his house, sometimes to the chagrin of his mother Linda and all the time to the annoyance of sister Robbin. He is the one who checked off the “Honey Do” list. He was always good with his hands—a quality I will forever be jealous of. He is the one who ran a paper route, not simply to make a few dollars for movies and popcorn but to help his mother and sister.
Randy had a monopoly on the paper throwing business in our neighborhood. He served as a sort of paperboy mob boss. Because his route covered a wide swath in our neighborhood a bicycle wouldn’t do, he had to drive it. His was a one car family—a puke-green Plymouth Valiant. No car maker could have made a less cool car than a Valiant. And no one looked less cool than the two of us crushing the mean streets of Garland, Texas. But that car was the workhorse of his paper route. He filled the backseat of that mighty steed with folded papers and charged through the neighborhood flinging missiles left and right. A skilled paper thrower, while driving a car, not only shifting hands on the steering wheel while alternating his throwing hand he also was able to hurl a paper through the passenger window without hitting the doorframe and landing the latest news on the porch. An expert paper thrower could toss a paper with his left hand over the roof of his car and hit the porch on the righthand side. Randy could do both; he was a master paper thrower. It was a sight to behold.
One summer morning we had an early marching band rehearsal and he was running late. No surprise there. Randy was never a morning person. He called and asked if I would help him throw his route so he wouldn’t be late for formation. “Sure,” I said. It seemed I had just hung up the phone when the Valiant screeched to a halt in front of my house. I jumped in and he tore down the street chucking papers. Every corner sent the news flying inside the car. Whenever he straightened out he was moving so fast that to hit your target you had to lead your throw, like leading a dove you’re about to shoot. If you threw when the house was parallel to you that paper ended up at the neighbor’s yard. I believe we set a new record for paper flinging that morning.
There was nothing sexy about the green Valiant, but it was the carriage by which we lived out our Garland adventures. Randy would pull up to my house, get out of the car, walk in without knocking and make himself a sandwich or help himself to whatever was in the refrigerator. When he finished stuffing his face, we left on whatever misadventures he had planned for us that day. He loved to do the Dukes of Hazzard trick and slide across the hood of the car to get to the driver’s side. One day he came over boasting that he had souped up the Valiant and could do a burnout. There were many things that car could do, a burnout wasn’t one of them. “I’ll prove it to you,” he said. He opened the trunk and pulled out a bottle of bleach and poured it under the rear tires, jumped in, smashed the accelerator and let off the brakes. It produced smoke, but it had more to do with the bleach than with the muscle of that wimpy car.
One day I heard the Valiant squeal to a stop outside my door. Randy was picking me up to go some place. I climbed in and he said he had forgotten something and needed to go back home. Since he only lived a few blocks from me, I dared him to drive home backwards. He did. He obeyed all traffic laws: stopping at all stop signs, using his turn signals, and driving the posted speed. He backed into his drive way, jumped out and ran into the house, and then off we went. This time driving forward.
In high school Randy ran for band president; I was his campaign manager. We decided on a theme of “Pick Peck for President.” With the help of my dad, we made campaign posters featuring a bunch of bananas that read, “Pick a Peck for President.” From that day forward, he was Peck-a-Banana. We lost, but he kept those posters, showing them to me decades later.
Randy was my friend. But he was more than my friend. He was my wingman when I need him the most. On my first date with Christy I was so nervous I asked him to come along for moral support. I don’t think Christy was too crazy about seeing Randy when she opened the door for our date to Superman, but I needed him. After that I ditched him, I could fly solo—much to Christy’s relief. Though I did let him stand with me at the wedding.
He was my backpacking buddy. Shortly after Christy and I were married, he and Diane joined us on a trip to Enchanted Rock. We arrived late in the evening and had to pick our way through the dark to our campsite. After setting up tents and eating our meal around a campfire we turned in. At some point in the night we heard grunting. Randy whispered, “Derrick, do you hear that?” “Yes,” I said, “Christy and I have been trying to figure out what it is.” At first we thought it was an animal, then realized a couple in a site across a small pond was having sex, which gave us all the the chuckles. The enchantment of the rock must have worked its magic. Then an amazing thing happened. After the grunting ceased, the woman began singing Amazing Grace. To this day, I, on occasion, still have to fight back a grin and a giggle whenever I see that wonderful hymn printed in the order of worship.
After our amazing time at Enchanted Rock we decided to do something more adventuresome—we would backpack southwest Colorado for ten days. Randy owned a Mazda pickup with a topper over the bed. Because it was a small truck we couldn’t squeeze four of us in the cab so Randy made a pallet in the back for Diane and Christy. The rear window had sliding glass so we could talk with the girls while traveling down the road. Randy had a mullet at this time and wore a red bandana around his head. He looked like a sixties hippy-wanna-be but with an eighties disco styling. In the small Texas Panhandle town of Chillicothe we were pulled over by highway patrol. Randy threw his radar detector—which obviously didn’t work—under the seat and ripped off his bandana. Before the officer arrived at Randy’s window he checked his hair in the rearview mirror. You’d have thought he was primping before a date. All I could think about were the girls in the bed of the truck. If the officer looked under the topper I was sure we were going to be arrested for kidnapping. I recall that day every time I drive through Chillicothe.
Once we made it to Colorado we swam with the beavers in Spud Lake; we backpacked Clear Lake and worried how we were going to get Diane off the mountain after she wrenched her knee; we explored the Indian ruins of the Anasazi at Mesa Verde; and got lost looking for a state park Randy had visited as a kid. Unbeknownst to us, until the next morning, we had stopped in that park for the night—the girls sleeping in the bed of the truck, me in the cab with my feet sticking out the window, and Randy curled up on a picnic table in a sleeping bag. We told ghost stories of the Goatman, who patrols parks in his Goat Van looking for weary campers to steal. The following year, after Randy and Diane married, we borrowed his father’s RV and drove to Aspen and backpacked the Maroon Bells.
In time, Randy would complete his masters degree and become an AIA licensed architect. He and Diane would move to Alaska, where she had accepted a position with the state as a registered dietitian. While there he told me of the time he was learning to cross-country ski and was treed by a bull moose; of hiking in the hills and seeing movement in the tall grass, a large animal charging him and believing it was a bear only to be surprised (and relieved) that it was a chocolate lab; of Diane putting him on a strict diet because he was underweight—drinking milkshakes and consuming copious amounts of peanut butter as snacks between three square meals a day, and the thought of food making him nauseous because he was eating so much (and only gaining a few pounds, which I always hated him for). I visited Alaska, carrying jars of Hell on the Red, his favorite salsa. We drove to Talkeenta and rented a plane and flew around the summit of Denali (Mount McKinley). It has been one of the highlights of my life—all thanks to Randy.
All this and so much more because a skinny kid from Garland, Texas said hello in the second grade.
On the Friday before his death, Randy called me. He was on his way to work. It was so good to hear his voice. He asked after Christy and the kids; he was always interested in their wellbeing and what they were doing. We talked about the Covid-19 pandemic. I joked that if he could find toilet paper in Alaska to send a care package to Texas. We discussed his concern about how people were responding—near panic—and his fear that the social fabric of our society was slowly wearing thin. More than the thought that Diane or he, or Christy and I or the kids would catch the virus, he was concerned about people’s mental health during this time. I agreed with him, I too was concerned. As he pulled into the parking lot outside his office, he said, “Well, I just pulled up. I guess I ought to get to work. You probably have things to do too. But before I go, let’s pray.” Since I’m the one with the seminary degree and in ministry, people often assume that I should be the first to pray, but Randy immediately went to prayer. His words were so beautiful and moving I had nothing to add except, “In Jesus’s name. Amen.” He told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him too.
That was the last conversation I had with my friend. I was looking forward to his visit in October—a visit that will never be. I will never speak to or see my friend again, until I speak with and see him in heaven. But the Lord in His great mercy and grace has comforted me with the fact that Randy’s last words to me were of Christ and of a loving friendship. For those who knew and loved him best, I pray his last words to me might minister to you, soothing the painful memory of his passing. I refuse to let the memory of his death rob me of the memory of his life. And that’s the way it should be.
On the day Randy died I wrote in my journal: “My friend Randy Peck, whom I talked with on Friday, woke up this morning and went to church, worked out with his beautiful bride Diane, and then went upstairs and shot himself.” That was Sunday, March 22, 2020. It was then that I began thinking about this tribute to my oldest and dearest friend. We grieve but not without hope, for in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there is hope eternal. And though we must endure for a time, the day will come when we will know as Randy knows a hope fulfilled. The demons can no longer claw and chew. He is at peace. And that’s the way it should be, to the everlasting praise and glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.