The kindness of friends allows me to sit seaside on the east coast of Florida this morning. i have been here for a few days alone, with a front porch 50 paces from the Atlantic, and have made use of this most ideal setting for reading, praying, thinking, and napping, all of which i have done in good measure.
Since Gary’s passing (i still have a difficult time using the word “death”), my days have been full, perhaps too much so, with things that needed to be done at home but i’ve had a gnawing sense that i needed to be alone for awhile, and undistracted, with Gary’s memory, not out of any dark need to grieve but simply to reflect on and, if possible, find my way into a deeper grattude for the past year.
i brought a large stack of handwritten papers — Gary’s old sermon notes — that i recently discovered in a file cabinet at his house. i had no idea that he kept them. They are largely illegible, and thoroughly invaluable.
i brought a book that he wrote for me as a birthday gift last year — a collection of devotional thoughts called Brother to Brother. There is one print copy of it, mine, in all the world.
i brought my computer with pictures of some of the trips that Gary and i took in recent years.
i brought a journal that i kept over the past 12 months. It was not a daily record, and it lacks in detail, but, if i’m not mistaken, it contains entries regarding significant moments and impressions from July 23, 2011 to July 22, 2012.
i miss my brother terribly. i still find it hard to take a deep breath and there are moments when realization of his absence doubles me over with a hurt i have no name for. The finality of death and the weight of the word “never” (as in, never walk together again, never hear his laughter, never see him across the field, a thousand “nevers”) force their inflexibility on me a bit more and more everyday.
But, at the same time, there are hope and faith and promises that hold. And something about sky and ocean on a morning like this one give me an abiding sense that all is well.
But don’t i wish, oh God how i wish, that i could walk today with Gary, and hear his voice, and add one more living sentence to the story of our friendship. i miss him so, so much.
For the past year, most, maybe all, of my entries on this site have been about Gary and the cancer season that we’ve walked through together. While i know that the season is not yet over for me, and never will be, i think it might be wise, and neighborly, to curtail my writing on the subject at this time. You have been so gracious to take interest in our journey, even to the point of asking me to keep you posted. When i’ve been inclined to do it, writing has helped me make sense of what we were living day to day. But i think it’s time to move on, to let other thoughts have a voice.
In closing this chapter, i’d like to share two journal entries, one from June of this year, one from July. They are in tribute to a handful of brethren, friends of Gary and mine and our family, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us at every step of the past year. In a sense, they are a tribute to all of you who have stood with us and blessed us.
First, an entry from June 16, 2012:
This morning, a pleasant, almost cool, Saturday morning, a group of 25 men or so, the same ones that come together weekly to ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds,’ gathered beside the small white chapel on the farm, shovels in hand, to cut a hole in the dense, but, thankfully, rain soaked Georgia clay. We worked in pairs. Each twosome would dig enough soil to fill a wheelbarrow, then make way for the next team — assembly line grave-diggers if you will. There was laughter and conversation. There was perspiration and deep breath. There was gladness and a sense of purpose to the morning’s labor.
Before the actual digging began, we assembled inside the old church building to pray and to discuss the day’s task. The point was made that our labor would be an act of kindness, an act of community, an act of affection, and an act of defiance.
It would be an act of kindness, a visible, practical gift to Gary’s family, as if to say, “someone, at some point in the near future, is going to have to do this difficult thing. We’d like to do it because we can do it with a love and with a purpose that no hired hand could possibly bring to the task. We have so been wanting to prove ourselves useful to you over the past months. Let our hands be the ones that break this ground.” Kindness.
It would be an act of community. Anyone knows that there are easier, quicker, more efficient ways than shoveling to dig a hole in the hard Georgia clay. There are diesel powered machines that do the work well, for instance. One person, impersonal and detached, can get the job done in very little time and with little or no sweat. But these brethren, during their decade of gatherings, have come to believe there is something holy about working side by side. And, particularly for an undertaking like this one, their participation is an affirmation that the passing of a friend is not just a private loss but a communal one. Our band of brothers will be diminished, considerably so, when Gary is gone. … i can say with confidence that no one there this morning will ever forget the experience. It was brotherhood. It was friendship. It was work. It was worship.
It would be an act of affection. All of those present this morning know and love Gary. Most have known him for years; all have benefited from his influence in their lives. Some are his ‘children in the faith’. Upon receiving news of his illness a year ago, these same men wept unahamedly and prayed unceasingly and talked unreservedly about their indebtedness to Gary. And today, while believing in the miraculous but resigned to the probable, they dirtied their hands and feet to prepare a place for his body. And a mighty fine place it was when all was said and done, precise and orderly and clean, 40 inches wide, 48 inches deep, 96 inches long.
It would be an act of defiance. We read this scripture to start the day:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, (Jesus) too shared in their humanity that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” — Hebrews 2:14,15.
Some might think ours’ a morbid task, one best left to the morticians and their crew. For us though, the doing of it allowed us to quietly declare that we will not live as slaves to our fear of dying. Any death, particularly this one, is in a sense unwelcome and unnatural. It still makes us uneasy and afraid. But, our work today was a ‘taunt‘ to the one who would have us live in abject terror of our mortality. “Death, we are not afraid of you. Where is your victory? Where is your sting? Have you not heard of Jesus? Have you forgotten His cross? Have you forgotten His empty tomb? Do you think that WE have forgotten it? Poor death. You poor pitiful thing.”
Kindness, community, affection, defiance — those ingredients make for a good day. And a good day it was.
When Gary was first diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after he agreed to seek medical care, we had to choose, as a family, what kind of treatment he should receive and where. Our choices were many. Early on, with Gary’s emphatic agreement, the decision was made to keep him close to home, in the belief that the best medicine – or most preferable death — was that which allowed for the constant nearness of people who loved him.
Gary is still with us, but weakening noticeably. i pray that we will love him well to the end. That has been our privileged work of the past year, to love him such that the last thing he feels, hears, or senses in this world will be the tenderness, reverence, affection and adoration of those to whom he means most; in short, so he will leave this place feeling the same things, but to a lesser degree, that he will feel when he takes his first breath on the other side. … Might today’s work have somehow served that purpose. Make it so, dear Lord.
This evening, i sent this message to the brethren:
Saturday evening, June 16, 2012, 9:35 p.m.
Words fail me but i didn’t want the day to end without at least trying to express my thanks to you for your work this morning. How blessed we are, and how heartily can we say with the Psalmist, “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” …
i went back to the burial plot this evening by myself. It looked and felt totally different than it did when we were all together there earlier today. This morning there was activity, conversation, and camaraderie. This evening, it was stillness, quiet, and solitude. Standing there alone made me thankful that my memories of the place will always include the sight of friends working side by side, the sounds of laughter and lightheartedness, and a sense of community that is bigger somehow than any one of us. Knowing that your footprints are in and around the spot where Gary will be laid to rest is a comforting thought and i’m sure that he’d be happy to know that you and i had a hand in preparing it.
It is such a gift to follow Christ and do life with ones like you. Thank you for sharing your time with me, not just today but weekly. i am honored, and
i am your debtor.
Then, a note from July 26, 2012
Our family burial service on Tuesday (the 24th) was concluded with one task unfinished. Gary’s casket and vault were put in place but left uncovered. This morning, instead of meeting at my house on the porch as we usually do, the brethren gathered by the chapel, shovels in hand, to ‘close’ Gary’s grave. It was a beautiful morning.
We sang a song.
We read John 21, spoke of resurrection, and said a prayer.
We moved the soil back to its place.
We said goodbye.