August 29, 1984. The only thing that was on my mind that morning was Tom Baker's guest appearance on Remington Steele the night before. It was the last Thursday before school started; the last week in a halcyon endless summer spent mostly hanging out with my best friend.
That summer my best friend's parents had split up and he eventually moved in with his Dad, who now lived in an apartment on Speers Road. I spent most of my summer in that apartment—it was conveniently located near Oakville's only comic book shop and my best friend and his father had an impressive collection of comics and records. My best friend was 15; I was just a bit more than 14 and a half.
We spent the summer looking at comics, listening to the Beatles (for me for the very first time), reading Doctor Who novelizations, racing each other to the roof of his building (one of us would take the stairs, the other would take the elevator) and, inevitably, taking long walks down around Oakville harbour—a place which was, and would be for both of us, a place of refuge from our turbulent adolescence.
August 29, 1984. The only thing going on in our family was that my maternal grandmother was in hospital and my mom was going down to St. Catharines that day to visit her. I was still buzzed about seeing Tom Baker on Remington Steele the night before. I was so excited when I saw it, I called my friend right away but he had missed it. Thus, my plan for the day was to go to his place and tell him all about it, and then maybe go see if any new comics were in and stop by our high school to leave a letter for my grade nine English teacher (I had a crush on her and had written her all summer; a week before she had sent me a postcard and I was over the moon).
But the plan didn't quite go the way I thought. First of all, my friend wasn't in when I phoned him. In the end, I decided to just come over.
That summer, I also spent a lot of time with my best friend's father. I liked my best friend's dad a lot. He let me call him by his first name. He loved comic books and movies and introduced me to the Beatles and jazz. He told me stories of playing in Barbados' number one band in the late fifties. He was honest and direct and involved. He was a cool dad.
My best friend's father had gone through a religious conversion in the midst of his marital breakup. He took to watching Kenneth Copeland on TV and started going to a small Baptist church downtown. To a cradle Anglican who therefore didn't think much about religion, this newfound interest didn't seem strange: it seemed cool. The way my friend's father talked about Jesus and about Christianity was the same way he talked about Lennon and McCartney and Batman by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams: he was excited and fascinated by it, and he made me excited and fascinated too. I liked the idea of a religion as plainspoken as he made it out to be. And I liked talking to my best friend's father. I sometimes even went over to the apartment on Speers Road when my best friend was away to talk to him.
August 29, 1984. I went over to my best friend's building and buzzed his apartment.
"There is nothing more useless than a lock with a voice print." I said, quoting a Doctor Who episode from two nights earlier.
He let me in.
I arrived to discover that my friend exuded serenity. He seemed upbeat, exhilarated. He explained that he had been out walking around and felt alive. We went for a walk to my high school and through downtown Oakville. During the walk, my friend explained to me what happened to him the night before that had led to this newfound serenity.
That night his Dad brought him a tape one of his co-workers, a fellow Christian, gave him called Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames. The play depicted several people who upon dying, would come to judgment. Those who had "accepted Jesus into their hearts" would go to heaven; those who didn't would go to hell. There was a prayer to accept Jesus at the end of the tape, and my best friend had said it earlier that day.
"Do you want to hear it?" He asked me.
And so we went back to his place and listened to it on a Sony portable tape recorder that was sitting on the coffee table. It was as he described it to me, depicting four scenarios where ordinary folk experience sudden—and usually violent—deaths stand at the gates of heaven. The ones that accepted Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Saviour—they usually established who these were before the sudden, violent death—were let in to heaven's gates with a flourish of angelic chorus music. But those who hadn't fell into the torture and flames of damnation, with the voice of Satan taunting them all the way.
There was one particular scene I'll never forget. A mom and dad and two kids are driving to a restaurant when they are killed in a car crash. The kids and the dad have let Jesus into their hearts and enter into heaven. But the mother hasn't and winds up going to hell. And as the hellfire surges and Satan laughs and taunts, she shrieks, "I'm a good person! I help others!" In that moment I thought of my grade nine English teacher, whom I had a crush on, and whom I thought to be the best example I could think of of a good person.
Once it was over, the tape invited people to say with them the prayer to accept Jesus. My best friend asked me if I wanted to make that prayer. I said I didn't know.
I forget what he specifically said, but I think it was something like. "But can you risk it?"
And then the phone rang.
It was someone for me. It was my sister.
"Grammie just died." She started crying.
My friend told me later that at that point all the blood drained out of my face.
I went home and sat down to an awkward dinner with my family. My mom was back from St. Catharines and looked terrible. I eventually asked if I could go to see my best friend and his father after dinner.
"No." My mom said.
"Please? I really need to talk to them about this." I explained.
"Why can't you be with your family now?" My mom asked, near tears.
"It's important. Please?"
My Dad turned to my Mom. "If it's going to help him, just let him go there." He said.
My Dad dropped me off not far from their place. Speers Road, however, begins with a steep inclined bridge and I still had to walk up what was effectively a big hill to get there. I felt a tremendous wave of anxiety. What was I doing? Did I really want to do this?
I still walked up that hill, every step bringing me closer to what I supposed would be an important moment in my life.
My best friend's father greeted me and offered condolences. We talked a little. My friend was going to say the prayer again; I was asked if I wanted to say it too.
I took a deep breath and jumped into the void. "Yes."
And sitting around the coffee table with my eyes tightly shut, I followed the prayer being played on the Sony tape recorder asking the Lord Jesus to be my Personal Lord and Saviour. I admitted I was a sinner and in need of salvation.
Afterward, I didn't feel anything, though I felt I should have. I just felt sort of dazed. My friend's father immediately hugged my friend, and I remember I felt a little jealous, and a little guilty for being jealous.
I took the bus home to find everyone in bed. I went down to the family room and picked up my Mom's Good News Bible. Sitting in her rocking recliner, I opened the Bible at random to Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Knowing nothing about Paul or the Bible, I read:
In the past you were spiritually dead because of your disobedience and sins. At this time you folled the world's evil way; you obeyed the ruler of the spiritual powers in space, the spirit who now controls the people who disobey God…But God's mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God's grace that you have been saved. In our union with Christ Jesus he raised us up with him to rule with him in the heavenly world.
And I felt like I was being talked to personally. It was real. It was all real.
August 29, 2004. Was it real? I don't know. I'm a very different person than I was then. My life, my choices, my beliefs, my God are now different than the ones I confessed that night, and yet the same in some ways.
What I do know is that day twenty years ago it was real for me, then. That day I felt that there were bigger things, eternal things, facing me—facing us all—and that a single choice, a single prayer, a single commitment, could change all that.
I was right in what I was thinking when I climbed up Speers Road, though. This would be an important moment in my life. I just didn't know in what way.