March 8, 2019

Vagabond Traveler: Me and Sam…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:35 pm


The possession of all things, even the air we breathe, is held
from us, and the river of life and time flows through the grasp
of our hands, and, for all our hunger and desire, we hold nothing
except the trembling moments, one by one.

—Thomas Wolfe

The news came knocking hard, early that Monday morning. I first saw it on social media and gaped in disbelief. It spread across the land and settled in our minds and in our hearts like a black and pestilent cloud. One more loss of life, one more journey snuffed out long before it should have, by any measurement our finite human minds can comprehend. I pondered the heavy thing. The memories came washing through like a flood. And back I went, in my head, to a time and place that happened long ago.

Ellen and I separated for the first time, way back in 2004, I think it was. Might have been 2003-04. The exact dates escape me, which seems a little odd. When you’re in the moment, it’s the heaviest thing in the world, and you swear every second of it will be seared forever in your brain. Then the months go by, and the years roll into a decade and beyond. And it all kind of shrinks back, recedes into the fog, the intensity of it. And the years start mingling together, until you’re not sure exactly when what happened, happened. This is like that, kind of.

I remember many things from those days, if not the exact dates. We ended up going to counseling at Life Ministries, down in the south end, close to Conestoga. Somehow, a close friend got me connected to Sam Gingerich, there at Life. I had never, never been to a counselor before. That was for sissies, where I came from. But this was a new and frightful place that called for things that had never been done before, so I decided to get counseling for the first time in my life. Sam was always in high demand, so I had to have an inside track to even reach him. At that point, I didn’t know if getting to Sam was a blessing or a curse. It didn’t take long to figure out. It was a major blessing.

I walked in for my first appointment, a little nervous. Filled out the forms that Norma, the receptionist, gave me. Then I sat and waited on one of those nice spindled wooden chairs they have lined against the wall, there in the lobby. I could see up the long stairs to the second floor. And right at 8:30, a man stepped out and came zipping down. He wasn’t real tall, but fit, with an intelligent face. He got down to the bottom and walked toward me and looked at me through thick glasses and smiled.

“Ira?” His voice was kind and sincere. Well, here we go, I thought to myself. I smiled back and nodded, then stood and reached and met his extended hand. Yep. You must be Sam. We chatted for a moment, then he turned and led me up the stairs and to the right a few doors to his office. It was nicely set up with a desk, a couple of cushy, comfortable chairs, and a big bay window you could look out of, to see the earth and skies. I didn’t know it that first day, but I would be spending a good many hours sitting in that cushy chair there in the corner. Over a few different stretches of time.

Sam and I talked. He had a way about him that made me trust him. Slowly, of course. That first morning, we got to know each other a bit. It was kind of funny, later, looking back. He asked me about something, some details of why we were having marriage troubles. I don’t remember the specific question. I responded quite vigorously. I will never, never trust anyone like that again. Never, ever. Sam looked mildly grieved. He cautioned me, gently. “I don’t like to hear the word, never. It’s defensive. And it takes a lot of energy to always guard against not ever doing something again or allowing your heart to trust again.” I looked at Sam. Nodded. OK. I can see that.

And that was the first little lesson he taught me about how to deal with the things in your life you can’t control. Guard your heart. Let go of the burdens that aren’t yours. Walk. Heal. Learn to enjoy, to laugh again. Forgive. Trust. Love, even if you get burned again. Take the risks. Live. That was the bottom line. Sam showed me that I could live again. And slowly, ever so slowly, I started clawing my way back out the rabbit hole. I was drinking hard in those days, and Sam accepted that. I was stunned. He didn’t judge me. He simply walked beside me, like a mythical cloaked wise man, waving his staff. “Here. This is the way. I can point it out to you. But you have to walk it. I can’t do that for you. I can walk with you, for a ways, just to make sure we get you on the right road.” And a weary, wounded traveler walked through the door into a new place and looked around in wonder.

That’s how it went, with me and Sam. He was such a man as that.

I went to see Sam regularly, every other week or so. It was a new thing for me. His quiet, probing questions made me go to places I had never been. And when Ellen and I talked, she could soon tell that I had been counseling with someone real. She asked, and I told her. I’m seeing Sam Gingerich, down at Life. You need to meet him sometime. And she was intrigued by the changes she saw in me, intrigued enough that she came. She met Sam. And she started going regularly to see him, too. Sam worked hard, counseling us both. He talked to us like he meant exactly what he said. Sometimes individually. And sometimes together. We worked hard, too, on our way back to each other. And by some miracle, we were reconciled after about six months. On the first day of spring, in whatever year it was, we officially reestablished our own little household with all the hesitant hope and faith in the future that Sam the Counselor had quietly guided us to see and feel. I opened my heart to the new dawn that would come, and I know that Ellen did the same.

It didn’t last. I guess there was no way it could. There were too many wounds in both our pasts, I think. A few years later, everything blew up again. For good, this time. All that time and energy Sam had invested went whoosh, out the window, just like that. I wrote about all of it before, way back in the early years of this blog. I’ve mentioned Sam a good many times. But I never considered things from his perspective. I don’t know what he thought and how he felt, to see all his efforts washed away like so much mud and muck. He’d seen it all before, many times, I’m sure. Still. I’m sure, too, that he hurt with those who were hurting like we were.

I huddled, shell-shocked in the center of the storm. There was lots of noise coming from lots of places. Sam stood with me, did what he could to guide me through the turbulent terrain. That very first day, the day me and Ellen separated for the last time, Sam met me out by the reservoir lake not far from his office. It was March, a milder March than this one is. We walked out to the waters, on the dam. Stood there hunched against the winds. I don’t remember a lot of the words we spoke that day, or that many words were spoken at all. I just remember that Sam was there. As a friend. A friend I trusted completely.

I went to see him regularly in the following weeks and months. Time slid on into years, then. With Sam’s patient guidance and counsel, I learned not only to face my fears, but to walk right up and confront them. He led me up to some hard doors, and I walked through them. And I will say. Life calmed down a good deal, over time. That’s when I started writing for real. Sam was always supporting and encouraging. (The only negative I could ever pin on him was that he was an Ohio State fan. When we chatted about college football, his eyes gleamed and he turned all frenzied like those people do. I tried to extend grace for this particular flaw.) I went to see him regularly for a few years, gradually increasing the span of time between each visit. I was working for the day that I felt strong enough not to go see Sam at all. That day came. Sam blessed me and wished me well.

We lost touch when I stopped getting counseling. Still. I knew where he was when I needed him. I went back to chat a few times around the time my book was coming out in 2011. Just to make sure I kept my head straight. It was maintenance, mostly, and Sam blessed me again when we parted. And we didn’t see much of each other outside counseling. I just never was where he was, socially. But I always knew where he was when I needed him. A few years ago, I was mired in some serious emotional issues. I was stuck in unforgiveness and a load of hurt. And it wasn’t getting better on its own. Didn’t matter how much I told God I wanted to let it go. The thing drug on, like some millstone around my life. Until it finally hit me. Go see Sam. So, I did.

We shook hands like two battered old warriors who had seen a lot since we’d last seen each other. I came, I said, because you are safe. I sat there in the same corner spot I always had before. I think there was a brand-new cushy chair by then. We spent a good bit of time, that first session, just catching up. Then I settled in and went to see Sam once a month. After six months, I had worked free of the load that had been dragging me down. Sam walked along beside me, gently pointing out the way. I knew what had to be done, I just wasn’t sure how to do it. Or if there was the strength to. Sam thought there was. He was right. I let go of the unforgiveness and embraced healing. Got some of that noise cleared out of my head. I felt truly free for the first time in a long time.

Then I said good-bye to Sam. We hugged. I walked out. This was in late 2016. I haven’t seen him since. Well, up until last week, I hadn’t. And therein lies the thread that got me started in the first place. I just took the long way around, getting here, I guess. A lot of things go through your head when you see a good friend walking through a hard door.

Sam and his wife, Cathie, have a lovely family. He always spoke highly of his wife and children. He deeply values family. I guess that’s why he fought so hard, early on, for Ellen and me. He hated to see a family torn apart. In our case, at least there were no children to make our separation more complicated. Sam and Cathie had children, three sons and two daughters. I was around them all a time or two when the children were younger. I never got to know them well, but I knew who they were.

And there’s where the darkness came from, that Monday morning last week. The night before, Sam’s twenty-four-year-old son, Ian Michael Gingerich, was instantly killed in a traffic accident less than a mile from their home. The news was staggering, it took your breath away, the tragedy of it. I thought of Sam right away, and what the man was walking through, right that second. My heart was heavy for my friend. It’s a brutal thing, for parents to bury a son.

The details came out, about Ian’s accident. A car came over the hill on his side on one of those narrow roads they have down there. I don’t know how fast either car was going. I just know that Ian didn’t have time to say good-bye to anyone. Not to his family, not to those closest to him, not to those he loved the most. He was gone before he could. Like I said, the tragedy of it just takes your breath away.

The viewing was on Thursday afternoon and evening, in two shifts, at the church Ian attended. Life Mennonite Fellowship, over close to Willow Street. I would go, I figured, to show my respect and offer condolences. There were a lot of people around Sam’s family, people much closer to them than I was. I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to show up. After work, I changed into a clean white shirt and a dress jacket. I got to the church early, because I don’t particularly care to sit around in such a place by myself. I was in the third or fourth row of people seated in the sanctuary. The air was quiet and somber. A screen up front flashed a rolling collage of Ian’s life from childhood, with many photos of him with his family and friends.

Soon the usher waved to my row. We got up and walked through a door in the back, into the large room where the family stood. The line snaked slowly, slowly, up to the coffin. Ian looked so young and natural. Like he was asleep, almost. I had not seen him since he was probably a young teenager. I lingered back, so as not to interfere with the couple ahead of me. And then I stepped up to Cathie, standing there, close to her son, where she could stroke his hair and face. She looked at me with tear-stained eyes, regal in her grief. I took her hand and spoke a few words. She recognized my voice and spoke my name. “Ira.” Yes, I said. We hugged. I murmured the only words that came to mind. I am so, so sorry.

I stepped to Sam, then. He took my hand. We embraced and the tears came unbidden. We wept openly. I told him. I am so sorry. I bring condolences and sympathies and prayers from all my extended Wagler family, the ones you knew. They all are mourning with you. And Ellen sends her love, too. I texted her, and she told me to tell you. We grieve with you in your loss.

He smiled his thanks. He remembers us all. We stood and talked for a moment. I don’t like to hold up the line at a viewing. It makes me crazy when people stand and talk and talk, oblivious to those stirring impatiently behind them. But a moment was fine. It makes no sense, I said. Still. The Lord is the Lord. That’s all I can think to say. Sam nodded. We embraced again, and the tears ran free. Thank you, I said. Thank you for all you’ve done for me over all those years. Down the line, then, to murmur brief condolences to each of Ian’s grieving siblings. They were all poised and gracious.

And I thought about it as I walked out to my Jeep. Sam Gingerich has poured his heart into the lives of hundreds, no, thousands of people over many years. For decades, he invested a lot of who he was into people like me, people he had no reason to really care for. Not to the extent that he would get involved in the messy details of the wreckage in our lives. Except that’s what the Lord called him to do.

We know who we are, the people who came knocking on Sam’s door. The wounded, the rejected, the unloved, the broken. And greatly healed, too, now, a good many of us. (As I’ve said more than a few times over the years, Sam is the reason I’m even half sane.) We remember how he cared for each one of us deeply. We know that he did his best to teach the healing truths he knew, to walk beside us on the right road. We remember how he spoke calmly and pointed to the light when darkness was closing in all around. That’s what a real counselor does.

And now he has lost a son. That’s a hard road. I hope all those people he cared for, I hope all those people care back for him.

Well. That was interesting, the last blog. I didn’t know what kind of response there would be. There are currently 74 comments, mostly with title suggestions. That’s the most comments, ever, on any one post on this blog. The second most comments happened when I asked for title suggestions for the first book, back in October, 2010. That post was child’s play, netting a measly 65 comments. I hope this bodes well for the future. Y’all rock, my readers, I gotta say. Thanks to every one who came up with a suggestion or ten. I loved it.

I wasn’t sure, how engaged people are. Fairly engaged, it turns out. I deleted a few redundant suggestions. And one comment from a flamer made me laugh out loud. Broken Roads; Unbroken BS. Except he didn’t say BS, he said the real word. Almost all memoir writing, well, almost all writing, can and will be classified as bullshit by some readers. You can’t please everybody, so you got to please yourself, as the song goes. That’s what I figure.

So, anyway. I chatted with Virginia, my editor, the other week. We needed to come up with the next step, the game plan. She was impressed with all the comments and all the suggestions. Right now, my own suggestion is leading by a nose. Broken Roads: Journeys with my Amish Father. Nothing is carved in stone, yet, but that’s how it seems to be shaking out. We’ll see.

We settled on a date, too, Virginia and me. The deadline for the manuscript has been moved back a couple of times. We talked about it and agreed that the first draft would be due on May 1st. That’s less than two months away. When I look at it from here, it seems like a big field to cross, like the Amish preachers say. I’m not freaking out, though. I’m plugging away, editing, editing, writing, writing, and rewriting, rewriting. There are a lot of gaps to fill in. The book will be scheduled for release in the spring of 2020. It seems weird, writing that number. 2020.

I’m excited. Not a lot of people get the chance to be where I am. Still. In the next six weeks, I’m going to a few places in my mind that will be hard to navigate. Right back to the raw footage. That’s the only way to get it told right, is to walk back through some hard places and look real close at what happened. Don’t get too tangled up in the why of it. Just tell the story.

Life is a gift. All of it. Every moment of every hour of every day. Even the hard parts. Maybe especially the hard parts. The Lord is the Lord. And that’s about all I know to say.



  1. My daughter spent time at Life Ministries some years ago. Sam taught a course in Ontario she attended back in January and is looking forward to having him come again.

    Comment by OSIAH HORST — March 8, 2019 @ 8:21 pm

  2. My daughter says Sam has another son with cancer.

    Comment by OSIAH HORST — March 8, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

  3. Yes, good.

    Comment by Sho — March 9, 2019 @ 3:44 am

  4. Thank you for your writings Ira, and for tackling the difficult stuff too…

    As a reader it forces a little uncomfortable (but necessary) introspection. Our lives are not always neatly packaged.

    I appreciate your willingness to lead us through difficult paths.

    Comment by Steve — March 9, 2019 @ 8:16 am

  5. Just when I thought I was done crying for the present, I read your interaction with Cathie and was done in again. Beautifully written tribute to Sam. May God truly comfort this family in their walk through this darkest providence.

    Also, since you’re obviously lacking for book idea titles, here’s one more. The word, “Hiraeth,” does have your name through its middle, although I’m sure you’re long aware of that. As always, enjoyed your pen.

    Comment by maria rockhill — March 9, 2019 @ 10:38 am

  6. Thanks so much Ira and well written. Someone with the gift of helping a broken person down this horrible path, while walking beside you, really is gifted. We can argue about whether Lebron is the greatest basketball player of all time, or was it Jordan. But they will never be as valuable as the one you called Sam. Thank you and, “Go Bucs.”

    Comment by Joe Troyer — March 10, 2019 @ 7:55 am

  7. Thank you for this well written blog. Sam was my best friend when I was in my late teens and early twenties. He has always been a very gentle and caring man and it is awesome to see him using his God- given gift to help broken people. It broke my heart when I heard the news about his son. I pray blessings over Sam, Cathy and their family as they pick up the pieces of this tragedy.

    Comment by Daniel Stutzman — March 13, 2019 @ 5:11 am

  8. Leave it to me to be out of sync. Hope its okay to still suggest a title. Love your choice but “broken” doesn’t quite work for a road. Could we use muddy, bumpy, winding, steep, hard, forked, lost, narrow, closed, long,by-passed, hilly,graveled, dusty, rigid etc. Insert any adjective that describes your dad and a road. That will nail the title. Thanks for your consideration.

    Comment by lisa — March 18, 2019 @ 9:38 pm

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