The Most Friends of All
Larry Bradford was a social nobody at North Franklin High School.
Yes, he was active in his North Atlanta Christian Church youth group, a high achiever in his advanced academic classes, and the recipient of an Eagle award with the Boy Scouts. But his peers barely knew he was alive. Among the books he carried in his backpack was a leather-bound Bible, a gift from his best friend—his father.
“Why don’t you have friends over once in a while?” his father would occasionally ask him.
“Because, Dad,” Larry’s gaze would drop. “The guys at school don’t really like me. Not a lot, anyway.”
Larry’s dad would smile a crooked, sad sort of smile. “Well, son. Then that’s what I’ll pray for: That one day you’ll have more friends than anyone in your class.”
“Okay.” Larry would grin and shrug his shoulders. His father was crazy to think anyone at Franklin High would ever connect with him, but that was okay. Friends at school didn’t matter. Larry was different from the guys in his math and English classes, and he was okay with that. He had his dad, after all. Someone to talk to and pray with and fish alongside on the weekends.
His dad was all the friend he ever needed.
But when Larry was a junior in high school his father was watching a football game on TV when he suffered a fatal heart attack. The memorial service brought a scant fifty people—friends from church and a few close family members. A week later, the truth hit hard. Larry had lost his closest friend—and in his dad’s absence, Larry’s situation at school became clearer than ever.
He didn’t have more friends than anyone in his class. He had fewer. Far fewer.
Thin and gangly, he was invisible, really. Not part of the preppy group or the social group, and definitely not part of the elite athletic group. At lunch he would sit by himself, reading his old leather Bible and wondering how he’d get through another day without his dad. Once in a while guys from one of the established groups would happen by and glance at Larry, sitting by himself with his ham sandwich and open Bible. Sometimes they’d whisper to each other, snickering and calling Larry a “Bible banger.” Other times someone would sit across from him and ask a pointed question like, “What’s the Bible say about hell?” or “How come you believe that stuff?”
“God’s real. His truth is real,” Larry would sometimes say. “What we believe about God doesn’t change the truth.”
The biting and hurtful comments from his peers didn’t distract Larry. He was determined to become the man his father had been: faithful, devoted, a Christian with determination to live his life and one day raise his family in a way that pleased God. The way his father had raised him.
Larry finished school and walked for his diploma with dry eyes. He’d never connected with his classmates, so the transition from high school to college was not an emotional one. He attended college and graduate school, married a woman he met his junior year, and became a pediatrician. His wife gave him three daughters and a son, and Larry never regretted the friends he didn’t have in high school. The only shadow of sorrow on the landscape of his happy life was the way he still missed his father.
On Larry’s thirty-seventh birthday he received two pieces of mail—the first inviting him to his high school twentieth reunion, the second confirming something his colleague and personal doctor had told him the day before: The flu-like symptoms he’d been experiencing for the past month were more than a weakened immune system.
He had a fast-moving, aggressive lung cancer.
“I have to be straight with you, Larry.” His doctor raised an eyebrow. “We’ll do everything we can on the medical side, but you know that prayer thing you always talk about? I’d get people praying right away.”
Larry drew his family together, and he and his wife shared the news with their kids. “We’re all going to pray for Daddy to get better,” his wife said, tears spilling from her eyes. “And we’re going to ask everyone we know to pray, too.”
Early the next week, Larry shot an e-mail off to Robert Wills, their high-school class president and the organizer of the class reunion. The two had shared several classes together during high school, and Larry was certain Robert would remember him. Even if the two hadn’t been good friends.
“Robert, I’ve been recently diagnosed with lung cancer. I won’t be attending the reunion. But if you could ask the class to pray, I’d appreciate it.”
Robert received the e-mail and was cut to the heart. Larry Bradford? The good guy, the Bible reader? Stricken with lung cancer? Shaken, Robert sent an e-mail to the entire class explaining that Larry was a doctor now, married with four kids. And that he wouldn’t be attending the reunion because he was battling lung cancer. He included Larry’s e-mail address.
That’s when the miracle began to play out.
One by one Larry began receiving e-mails from the members of his graduating class.
From the quarterback of the football team—a cocky, foul-mouthed kid—Larry received a note that read, “Larry, you were an inspiration to us all. This old world needs you, buddy. Hang in there, and yes—I’ll be praying.”
From a pretentious guy in his algebra class: “Larry, remember all those times you read your Bible and the rest of us didn’t get it? Well, I get it today. I’m a Christian now, and I don’t know—my whole life is different and maybe it’s all because of you. Because you never backed down about your faith, not ever. You’ve got a friend here in Branson, Missouri, pal. A friend who’ll be praying for you every day.”
Larry was stunned by the responses. He shared them with his wife, his voice filled with awe. “You don’t understand, honey. I didn’t have a friend in school, not one.”
“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “Look at what they’re saying now.”
Larry started treatment and a decision was made. He would have to have one of his lungs removed if he had any chance of survival. Surgery was scheduled for the following week. During his recovery in the hospital his wife brought him his laptop computer so he could check his e-mail.
Dozens of e-mails from former classmates filled the box.
“I got married three years out of high school and a year after that my wife left me,” one guy wrote. “I was lost and alone, and I thought about ending it. But then I remembered you, Larry. Sitting by yourself every day eating lunch and reading your Bible. You had no one and you were so happy, man. I mean, always happy. It wasn’t something that changed every day; it was part of who you were—a happiness that came from your eyes. That week, when I wasn’t sure I could live another day, I bought a Bible and found a church. I’ve been a believer ever since. Fight hard, friend. You have no idea the difference you’ve made in my life.”
Another said that she’d heard about the prayer rally of their classmates and had to get involved. In the process she’d reconnected with her best friend, someone she’d lost touch with a decade earlier. “We’re both praying for you, Larry. You’re bringing everyone together.”
Against all odds, Larry began to improve. The reunion was two months away, and Robert Wills sent out another e-mail, this time to inform the class to keep praying for Larry’s recovery—but to pray for something else, too.
“Pray he can come to the reunion,” Robert wrote. “It’s time we show Larry how many friends he has now.”
And so they prayed.
Grown-ups who’d been a part of every social level at North Franklin High prayed alone and with their families and in online groups. They begged God to give Larry another lease on life, more time to grace the world with his unwavering faith.
“We need you, Larry,” wrote a guy who’d been the partying type. “We all wanted to be like you back then. But only you had the guts to do your own thing. You’re our friend and our hero; you gotta make it, man.”
Three weeks before the reunion, Larry was weak and struggling to maintain a positive attitude. But that day he received the best news he’d had since getting sick. The surgery appeared to have gotten all the cancer. Larry’s radiation and chemotherapy sessions would be tapered off, and if things continued looking this well, they’d be discontinued.
“I didn’t think you’d still be alive at this point,” his doctor leveled with him. “Whatever you and your people are praying, keep it up.”
“Have you thought about going to the reunion?” his wife asked him later that week. “They really want you to come.”
Larry wasn’t sure. He was touched beyond words by the outpouring from his former classmates, but he and his family lived in south Florida now, so it would mean a flight and several days away. He took his wife’s hand. “Go with me?”
She smiled in a way that still melted his heart. “Definitely.”
Larry continued to feel stronger, so they asked his mother to stay with their kids and they flew to Atlanta for the reunion. The night of the big event, Larry had doubts. Sure he’d received e-mails that had touched him. But his class would still see him as the loner, the nobody. They probably wouldn’t even recognize him, and with his health still a concern, he would’ve been better off staying home and spending time with his kids.
Before they walked out of the hotel and headed for the hall where the reunion was being held, Larry pulled away and prayed. “God, you allowed me to come here. Now let me make a difference for these people from my high-school days. Just let me make a difference.”
They were half an hour late when they walked into the hall that night, and only then did Larry realize how many people were pulling for him. Robert Wills saw him first and motioned to a few others. Table by table the word spread, and people began smiling at him, standing, clapping.
A chill ran down Larry’s spine, and he stopped short, staring at the outpouring. Beside him, his wife squeezed his hand and leaned close. “I thought you said you weren’t popular.”
Larry couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer.
In less than a minute, everyone in the room was on their feet, their applause filling the room.
“Larry! Larry! Larry!”
They chanted his name the way they’d once chanted for the school jocks. Robert came up to him and gave him a microphone. “Talk to ’em, Larry. Half of them wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
“What do you mean?” Larry looked from Robert to his classmates, confused.
“I mean they wouldn’t have come.” Robert shook his head. “Everyone here’s been praying for you, Larry. They came to see you, to thank you for showing them what it means to have faith.”
The night was amazing, full of conversations Larry was sure he’d remember as long as he lived. The people who had shown him no concern back in high school now felt a shared sense of faith, a whisper of wonder that indeed God had granted them a miracle. Most special for Larry were the people who pulled him aside and apologized.
“I didn’t understand you back in high school. But I do now,” one man told him. “Faith is all that keeps me going. It’s been a privilege praying for you these past weeks.”
On the way home that night, Larry and his wife talked about all that had happened.
“It’s a miracle.” His wife shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears. “The doctors didn’t think you’d be here, and look at you.”
Larry smiled, his grip tight on the steering wheel. “I would’ve had my miracle even if I hadn’t been well enough to come to the reunion.”
“Meaning twenty-three years ago my father prayed I’d have more friends than anyone in my class. I thought he was crazy.” Larry chuckled, his voice tinged with awe. “But now look at me.”
Note: Two years later, Larry died. One of his final statements to his wife was this: “I love you, honey. But just think . . . one day this week I’ll get to see my dad again.” The funeral service was a standing-room-only event, attended by his family, church friends, medical colleagues, and neighbors. And more than a hundred of his high-school classmates.
Copyright © 2004 by Karen Kingsbury.