Fourteen-year-old Ian stared blankly across the hallway at the green curtain with its small white dots. His mother waited outside, struggling with her own grief. Ian can’t remember how long he stood there. It felt like he was in a trance. Around him, the ICU hummed with quiet efficiency but time had stopped for Ian, compressed into a leaden block of grief that wouldn’t budge. So he stayed in the hallway outside of the room where his friend lay dying.
Henry Dykes and Ian Stitt were the most unlikely of friends.
Henry was a 60-something salesman who had retired from Tektronix, while Ian is a kinetic kid with OCD and Tourettes Syndrome. Henry lived quietly with his wife, Elaine, across the street from the Stitt family. Though a bit introverted, Henry was affable and a good neighbor, so the two families soon became friends. Henry was also a tinkerer with a delightfully cluttered garage, the kind that’s irresistible to a curious and intelligent child like Ian.
While his sister, Sophie, bonded with Elaine, Ian was drawn to Henry and his seemingly endless supply of interesting gadgets. Before long, the Dykes had become surrogate grandparents to the Stitt children. When asked what those years of friendship meant to him, Ian replies, “Henry was my best friend. I didn’t care about the age difference and neither did he. My Tourettes and OCD made it harder for me to make friends with the other kids in school, so I kind of kept to myself a bit. I wasn’t lonely or sad though."
“Henry was always there when I got home.”
Memories of better times with Henry faded as the ICU came back into focus. Ian took a deep breath and walked across the hallway to his friend’s bedside. Ian was shocked as he entered the room. Henry lay semi-conscious on a raised hospital bed. Its height a telling clue. Elevated to allow easy access to his body, it facilitated the constant attention he required. Henry wasn’t getting out of that bed any time soon. He seemed transfixed by the tubes and wires that sustained his ebbing life. To Ian, the room’s equipment was oddly reminiscent of Henry’s gadget-filled garage.
While Ian and Henry loved tinkering in that garage, they also shared a passion for video games. But Henry wasn’t a fan of the violent first-person titles favored by so many kids Ian’s age. Instead, he introduced the boy to Spore. The object of this strategy game was to grow from a single-celled organism, a spore, into a complex being. It captured the philosophy of Henry’s life, along with a significant lesson he taught Ian, “You will run into difficulties, but you must persevere and overcome. There is always hope for a better future, beyond whatever pain you’re experiencing at present.” Not bad advice for a kid who had to learn how to navigate life with challenges like Tourettes and OCD.
Ian saw that philosophy in action when Henry was diagnosed with sinonasal cancer. According to Ian, Henry believed the doctors had caught it early and his prognosis was good. For a while, that seemed possible. During treatment, the two friends maintained their routine of fixing things in the garage, playing Spore, and sharing hefty meals of spaghetti and meatballs. Despite Henry’s diagnosis, things seemed back to normal at first.
The illusion of any recovery was shattered when Henry’s health worsened. New and different symptoms pointed to his cancer spreading. It was now in his lungs and the soft tissues throughout his body. He wasn’t given long to live by his doctors. The quiet beep of the ICU machines keeping Henry alive interrupted Ian's memories. They barely masked the crinkling paper as Ian drew a note from his pocket. More than anything, Ian wanted to tell Henry how he felt about him. The teen had penned a letter. Writing it was made all the more difficult by his ticks, the involuntary movements that mark Tourettes Syndrome. Reading it was even harder than the writing.
“I wasn’t even sure he could hear me. They had him in some kind of an induced coma.” Even so, Ian recited the lines he’d written, pouring out his heart along with his love for Henry. The older man was supposed to go quickly. “Three days”, his doctors predicted. But Henry hung on for three weeks. Eventually making it out of ICU and into hospice care. There were short periods of lucidity, and Ian was there for many of them. His schooling took a back seat, and Ian’s absenteeism eroded his grades. Even so, he remained committed to his friend. It was all about Henry. All the time.
Ian looked like he was doing okay in the months following Henry’s death. Back in school, he worked to catch up. He also continued attending church with his family. He said and did what was expected of him as the eldest son, the older brother, a bright student, and a “good” Christian kid. He didn’t allow anyone to see the gaping wound that used to be his friendship with Henry.
Slowly the pain began to surface. Ian became short tempered. He erupted at family members, his dad in particular. The people closest to him, like his best friend Joshua, began to ask if he was okay. Ian brushed the questions aside. But always, always there was this abiding anger. “I never doubted God’s existence. I just began to think he was a monster. If he was there and he didn’t see Henry, didn’t heal him, then maybe he didn’t see me. Or maybe he just didn’t care about me."
“I was so angry at God after Henry died.”
Thoughts like this gnawed at Ian as surely as the cancer that consumed Henry’s life. The pain was almost unbearable. “I didn’t want to feel anymore, so I began to self-medicate. I had a prescription for my Tourettes, and I discovered that if I overdosed it numbed me emotionally. I didn’t get high but it took the edge off.”
Ian also discovered that there were other ways to numb his pain and feel the things he wanted to feel. “I have to say that I love my family. My parents did everything they could to shelter me and my siblings from the bad things in the world. That was good but there was also a downside. When I was first exposed to pornography, I wasn’t ready for it. And being OCD makes it even harder to resist temptation.”
Ian could feel the pull of a downward spiral that sought to claim him. He knew he needed help. The spring after Henry’s death, a darkness that was overtaking Ian began to lift. He went on a guys’ retreat led by Pastor Jeff Cero. The entire weekend was designed to help young men live with honesty and sexual integrity. Most of the students on the retreat were struggling to some degree with the issue that dogged Ian. So, he began to open up to a few friends, Josh among them. “Josh, Connor, and Gavin were really there for me. When we began to talk about being men who were pure, it also made a way for me to talk about what I was feeling after losing my friend.”
This band of brothers who gathered around him when he needed them most made a difference. Ian began to see that he wasn’t really alone. That every tear he shed, Jesus also shed. When Henry bled out from cancer. He wasn’t alone. Jesus also knew what it was like to feel the blood and life leaving his body. Ian realized that the God he worshiped, the one he followed, didn’t observe human suffering from a distance. He, Jesus, was in the thick of it. Reflecting on those times, Ian remarks, “He was bleeding right along with me.”
Honest conversation and real community led to new possibilities. Ian’s relationship with his father saw steady improvement. They were talking again without fighting. He found renewed life in his friendship with other guys who supported him with accountability and shared ministry. Ian also began to see his future come into sharper focus. “It’s weird. My dad is a salesman for a tech company. Henry was too. I’ve thought maybe I should do that as well, but Henry’s death has somehow helped me know that I don’t want that.”
When asked what he does want, Ian talks about a career in medicine. He even mused out loud that maybe he’d like to enlist in one of the armed forces and train as a medic. “I want to help people, like Henry, who are hurting and need care.” A few minutes later, almost as if on cue, an officer in fatigues stops by the small table in the coffee shop where Ian is seated for this interview. He explains that he couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. The officer tells Ian that he’s a trauma doctor assigned to special forces units. He hands his card to the young man, “Give me a call if you ever want to talk about a medical career in the service.”
It’s a small gesture. But when viewed through the lens of Ian’s story, it’s so much more. Does God see him? Does Jesus want to address Ian’s pain and redeem the loss he’s suffered? The card in Ian’s hand seems to answer those questions.
If you need the kind of help and healing Ian experienced, contact our partner Pure Life Alliance confidentially . Or, if you have a story to share or want to join our team of writers, photographers, and filmmakers, please email Jamie Robison, our story team lead.