I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it. —William Faulkner
Saturday, July 28, 2012
A life well lived
It was a week ago this morning. I was awake but still in bed when the text came through,
I responded that I was, and she said then that her mom had found her dad unresponsive on the bathroom floor and they were taking him to the hospital. I immediately began to pray and made my way downstairs, reassuring her all the way that things would be fine.
We chatted back and forth for a bit, but soon she said,
I'm going home.
I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor and said, "Oh no, Lord. Not Brian. Please, not Brian..."
My sweet friend is from Dallas, and she stayed here after college to pursue a graduate degree. We met through a friend and developed a precious relationship that gradually resulted in us claiming her as a member of our family.
She was headed back to Dallas to be with her Daddy.
We prayed fervently for God's will to be done throughout the weekend, and prayed fervently for healing — a miracle.
The text came quietly
It's bad and getting worse.
My prayers changed at that point.
I headed out that night, under the stars, and poured it all out before the Lord.
Not Brian. Why Brian?
I had only met him once, early last September. We had lunch with my friend, her family and another friend and family. Brian and I sat across from each other, and I was struck by his kindness, his wanting to know about me and the sweet way he engaged me in conversation. There was a lot going on during that lunch, but he was intentional in his conversation. My favorite part of the lunch was his showing me multiple pictures of his beloved cat on his phone. My friend eventually said, slightly embarrassed, "Dad, that's enough!" but we continued to look at pictures and talk about that sweet cat.
I just fell in love with him.
I was blessed by that brief encounter, and thought about it a lot. I stayed amazed at the attentive care I saw Brian give to his daughter. He would drive to meet her at the airport when she had a layover near him. He would buy and send her care packages of things she casually mentioned she was interested in. They talked on the phone nearly every day. She had a constant stream of stories about the way he cared for her, her mom and brother. Things he said. Ways he encouraged. I can't count how many times she would laugh her sweet laugh and start a story with, "My dad..." Often when I did something for her she would say, "That's like something my dad would do..."
I thought about these things and more as I pounded the pavement that hot, dark night.
He was the most amazing father and husband. I knew this for a fact. A Godly man who literally was the ideal father and husband. I knew he devoted his life to teaching others what the Lord had so graciously taught him.
Brian passed away Monday, July 23rd at 12:14pm.
We were getting ready to celebrate my youngest child's sixth birthday.
My daughter stood in the bathroom with me, so incredibly sad for her friend.
"Mom. It's Zane's birthday," she said.
I know, sweetie.
She was quiet for a minute.
"Life and death, all on the same day. I guess that's how life is."
She walked sadly out of the bathroom, and I choked back tears.
I guess it is.
Soon I was on a plane.
It was easy to talk about him to everyone I met. I told the lady on the plane that sat next to me all about him.
I told her that he went to bed Friday night perfectly fine, making plans for the next day, and his wife never talked to him again.
That doesn't seem to make sense to me.
I arrived in Dallas and my friend called me while I stood in the lobby of the airport.
I'm on top of the parking deck and I can't figure out how to get to the bottom to get to you...
"Stay there," I told her. "I'll come to you."
When I got to the top, she said, "My dad would have known how to get you with no problem. He always knew everything..."
But you figured it out, I said. You will always be able to figure it out. It will be hard and sad, but you will be able to always figure it out.
I was mad, though. That she had to.
Family started arriving literally from all over the country.
Proving that we really do live in a small world, or perhaps through divine providence, I know some of Brian's family. My youth minister was married to Brian's sister. His other sister and parents attended the church I also attended. There are even pictures of my friend playing with my sisters when they were all little.
It was sweet and hard to see them this way.
The house filled with people and soon we were carried along by the sheer volume of people, chatter and motion.
It was surreal.
We ran errands, meeting people along the way that loved Brian dearly.
The more stories I heard, the more my heart ached.
This man touched so many lives. How? "How did he do it?" I kept wondering.
Everyone had story upon story about Brian and how he loved them and cared for them.
He bought groceries for his wife at Walmart each Friday morning. He knew each employee and what was going on in their lives. The manager told each Friday morning employee that Brian had passed away. They grieved together.
The produce man at Walmart sobbed when he heard the news. Brian was his friend.
The busboy at the bagel shop where Brian went every Thursday morning broke down and wept when his boss told him. Brian was his friend.
The janitors at the church where Brian was on staff. The widow of his close friend that died a few years ago. The pastor and staff at Brian's church. Neighbors that saw Brian walking in the mornings. Everyone was grieving that he was gone. Everywhere we went there were stories of Brian and how he loved and served.
I started to see the depth and width of a life lived in devotion to serving others.
I was overwhelmed.
Bits of conversation swirled around me constantly.
They are expecting close to 2,000 people at his memorial service...
I sat back in my chair.
He loved well.
Brian's son walked in the house. I had heard my friend talk about him for a long time. I loved him already. I knew to expect that he would look exactly like his father. What I didn't expect was to see was how broken he was. He stood by me and I prayed wildly for him. I clicked into what my friend calls "bossy big sister" mode. I tried to feed him. Found him on the back patio and sat near, watching, just to see if I could do anything, but not wanting to disturb him. I kept thinking about Isaiah 59:1 - Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. And though this verse has its own context, I prayed it over this brother, that the Lord would save him from harm in his grief. That he wouldn't drown in his grief. That he would be able to grieve with peace and hope. His grief was deep and complex. It came from a different place. Being the son who looked just like his dad. Pressure. The Lord kept whispering, "I have a plan for him. Trust me. I have a plan. This is part of his journey. My arm is not too short to hold him in his grief..." These words came over and over again, as I annoyed this sweet guy, making him put tissues in his pocket and hovering near.
The morning of the funeral. Mrs. Norma said, "I think Ben is here." She found him in his old room. I heard my friend's voice call me from the bathroom. I leaned against the door frame and she said, "Talk to me..." I recited to her everything that had happened in the last hour and she started breathing normally again. Anxiety and grief are so often one. Her mom walked into the bathroom already in her dress, no shoes and rollers in her hair. Though grief had colored her features, she was still so beautiful. She was holding a piece of paper. "Listen to this," she commanded in her soft voice. She began to read:
“My father was the greatest father, husband, friend anyone could ask for. He loved all people and put everyone before himself or belongings or money. He always has told me, “If anything ever happens to me know that I love you and am so proud of you.” I am very lucky to have that. Yesterday my mom pulled me aside into her bedroom and to my dad’s closet. She handed me the pair of shoes I am wearing today and told me my dad had just bought them and didn’t even get the chance to wear them and she thought I should because I have big shoes to fill. I also would like to thank everyone for all their love and support. While in the hospital I was thinking a lot about a line from a song “I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to find out the hard way how strong I am. What I’m made of. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to walk through the fire. I’m not sure I can handle it.”
But in the next song on the album there’s a line that says
“No one should ever have to walk through the fire alone. No one should ever have to brave that storm. No, Everybody needs someone or something.”
And we haven’t. We have all seen so much love and support from friends and family dropping everything to fly or drive out here or bringing by food. We all really appreciate everything you all have done. —(lyrics from the band La Dispute on their album "Wildfire.")
I pressed my shoulder hard into the door frame, willing it to hold me up. I panicked trying to get the tears off my face before anyone could see. My friend and her mom looked at each other. There were no words. We were speechless.
Her brother had written that the night before. My heart thanked the Lord.
That boy was going to be okay.
"The way is long, and difficult the road..." Dante's words fit perfectly. This journey of grief. Up out of the pit.
The rest of the day every time I looked at those shoes I would repeat to myself, "Your arm is not too short to save."
Soon we were driving through Dallas. The heat threatened to creep in the cracks of the long black car. The cold air blasted, cooling my skin. I breathed deeply to keep the tears locked behind my eyes. I sat next to Mrs. Norma, Brian's mother-in-law. She fidgeted. The diamond on her finger kept winking at me, catching rays of sun through the window. 56 years of marriage. She brushed imaginary lint off the arm of her husband's suit. He clutched the key that I had given him to lock the door behind us. He wouldn't put it in his pocket. He sat on the other side of her. Brian wouldn't get to 56 years of marriage. I swallowed hard. I blinked against the tears and studied the Dallas skyline. Texas is flat. Patty Griffin kept singing in my head. I pretended we were going somewhere else. Perfect peace, perfect peace. You keep in perfect peace him whose mind is stayed on You...
The church. The pastor greeting the family, forcing words through his choked back tears.
Brian was his best friend.
The priests and rectors from her mom's church, straight and strong in their collars, clutching Bibles, solemn and eyes glassy.
A Baptist and an Anglican service.
Fitting for Brian.
The doors opened to an enormous church. It was so beautiful that I lost my breath for a second. I wanted to take pictures of it. A million images rushed me. The choir members wiping tears away. The packed sanctuary. Brian's picture at the front. A constant prayer for the family. Lord, help them do this... The beauty and elegance of the Anglican ministers' procession down the aisle, quoting Scripture chosen by the family. Singing "Great is Thy Faithfulness" from a Baptist Hymnal, feeling the familiar weight of the book in my hand, wanting so hard to fully believe what I was singing. Missing an arm around my shoulders. I wish you were here. Thinking of a sweet, beautiful lady who would miss an arm more and for longer.
I blinked upward. The tribute spoken by Brian's best friend was perfect. Poignant, funny and touching. I saw so much of his precious daughter in it. Each pastor spoke. Each was Brian's best friend. One asked that we pause, turn to someone next to them and share a story about Brian. I sat and listened to the beautiful roar of a sea of voices all sharing a story. I heard laughter. I heard weeping. An amazing tribute to a life dedicated to service. Nancy sang, "We Shall Behold Him." Nancy had been secluded in west Texas without cell service and was flown in the morning of the funeral. This was fortunate since for years Brian had told her she would sing at his funeral. The gospel was preached sweetly, gently and firmly. Clearly. My heart rejoiced and begged the Lord to bring people to Christ through those words. We recited The Apostles' Creed. I forced my self to form each word. I would not cry. The choir started to sing "The Majesty and the Glory." I blinked hard and stared upward at the beautiful architecture of the church.
Allyson is Brian's sister. The oldest of five siblings. I adored her when I was in her husband's youth group. I loved her laugh. I loved her warmth. I loved everything about her. I wanted to be like her.
We had marveled at her this week. She was a constant blur. She had a clipboard attached permanently to her arm. She single-handedly took care of everything. She knew every answer to every question. She organized and directed and laughed and cried and hugged and welcomed and served.
So much like Brian. The family had always said she was a female Brian. And I saw that.
We had to meet one of the doctors who had cared for Brian in order to have some insurance forms filled out. They were in her clipboard. He sat with us, talking about Brian. Saying how sorry he was. Saying how inexplicable it was. Allyson said God knew. The doctor didn't respond. She pointed to "discharge date" on the form. "I mean aren't you discharged when you die? When you die, aren't you discharged then?" Rachel and I simultaneously burst into laughter. She didn't miss a beat, pointed at us and said, "You two can go wait in the car!" before she laughed her famous laugh. We couldn't stop laughing. "He was discharged into Heaven! He was discharged to Jesus!" We all laughed and thankfully the doctor didn't commit all three of us then and there.
Oh Brian, you are with Jesus.
The choir sang this beautiful hymn. "The Majesty and the Glory." One of Brian's favorite. It quotes King David in Psalm 8, "Oh what is man that You are mindful of him?" I continued to battle the war with my tears. The choir was full. Each paused their Thursday to be there. To sing. Did they rehearse for this? How much time did they all take to do this? To sing one of Brian's favorite songs? We would never know how many people paused their lives to pay tribute to this man. We would never know how many people worked and all each did.
But You know, Lord.
The majesty and glory of Your name...
Allyson stood to her feet.
Her husband stood next to her, one arm lifted high.
The blinking couldn't stop the tears.
One by one, each family member stood.
I bent my head and wept. And wept.
We sang the Doxology and I could only mouth the words, tears flowing freely down my face.
We walked what had been described as the 400 yard hallway to the reception hall.
Brian had recently planned his funeral. It's a long story, but in short the family believes that God was preparing him to leave this world.
He loved a Dallas specialty, Stein's Bakery, and their cake. He had one each year on his birthday. One wish was to have Stein's cake and chilled glasses of milk at his funeral.
Another of Brian's best friends owned a restaurant in town. They catered the food for the reception. I slipped into a side room to sit for a moment and pray, something out of the window caught my eye...
Sweet people out in that Texas heat cooking the food there at the church so it would be just perfect.
How many people are serving Brian today?, my heart cried out. They served with such joy, glad to have a chance to serve him for a change.
The family greeted guests for three hours. I simply prayed for strength, perseverance and endurance for them. My sweet friend and her mama changed into flats we had brought for them. They greeted, hugged, smiled and even comforted their guests. As people waited in line, they watched, with smiling and teary faces upturned, the video slide show of Brian's life.
Then we were tucked into the shiny black car sliding along the hot Dallas interstate once again. I peered through the flowers that sat in the passenger seat. The Lord had been so faithful. That was done. What lay ahead couldn't be thought about yet. We were working hard to stay in the moment. No thinking. No processing.
The day spun into a blend of family and food. It grew late. Finally, it was quiet. She came into her old room and snuggled into a chair. Her eyes were quiet and sad. We talked about the day. Her dad.
It was perfect. He would have loved it.
I awoke the next morning to the same cat Brian and I had bonded over standing next to the bed. He slept there now, and was more than a little bothered to find me there. I patted the bed and happy to have found a friend, he snuggled in next to me. I stroked his soft fur and thought about how much this cat was loved. I am sure he was missing his owner.
She brought me coffee in bed when she woke up - a servant like her father. When I saw the coffee cup, I smiled.
I chose it on purpose, she said.
"I'm sure you did," I responded.
I was fighting here to have faith in this, God's plan for this family.
My weakness — my lack of faith, visiting me here again.
We talked for awhile. I changed the sheets, did some laundry, cleaned the kitchen. I do best when I can putter.
But her mom needed to talk. We sat, gathered, as she recounted detail-by-detail the events of the last days. The room was dark. We were still. My heart ached for her. Prayed for her. Constantly.
Family arrived. They left to go visit her mom's church, where she is the women's minister. I was flying out before they got back. Each family member hugged me goodbye. I hugged Mrs. Norma and she didn't let go immediately. I fought more tears. We bonded, Mrs. Norma and I. She had interrupted me as we talked the night I met her. She touched my necklace. Elephants. She collects elephants. We laughed over a shared love of elephants. She told me about her collection. What will they do with it? she asked me, laughing. Nobody wants those elephants. Her eyes brightened. I'll tell them to give them to you. You'd love them. Yes, I laughed. Yes, I would love them. I loved her, too. She and Mr. Bob had stayed with Brian after everyone had left. Right to the end. Just them. That touched my heart.
I sat beside my friend, holding her hand. I had to leave her there. Far away. I knew her mom needed her and I knew the Lord would care for her, but I didn't want to leave. I didn't know for sure that she would come back here to stay. Everything changed that morning. So much changed.
I can't stop thinking about Brian. The lives he touched. I have literally never seen a man who touched so many lives. I have never seen anyone who did so much for so many people. Someone said, and it's true, it will take an entire community to do for others what this one man did.
I think about a quote that I read not too long ago. A man touched a baby and said to his mother,
Teach him to deny himself
I had already thought about this a lot, but to see it in motion. To see what a life full of devoted service to others can do. What He can do through us when we deny ourselves.
I worried a bit. See a lot of people who serve this way do it out of a deep dysfunction. They step over their own families and serve for a myriad of wrong reasons. Incorrect motivations. I see this. I see the impending disaster that is forthcoming. I see it in myself. I see it with my kids and my husband. I have been made more aware of it even more recently. I asked her with a heavy heart because I needed to know;
Did he care for you and your family first?
She nodded silently and I believed her. I knew it already, but I had to be sure. I needed to know that after countless stories of how he served others that the family wasn't resentful. But they weren't. He served them first. He never stepped over them to serve others.
It was a ripple effect of his relationship with the Lord, but the first ripple was his family.
It was hard fought for, though. He did previously serve out of deep, hard dysfunction and the Lord healed and was continually healing him from this. His service to others now flowed out of gratitude to Christ for His salvation and thanks for the way the Lord had healed him. But he worked hard to get there and hard to stay there. He worked hard.
And served with joy.
He left a gaping hole that will not be filled. Thanks be to our Lord that He can allow those that loved Brian to carry on. He is the strength that they need. He lost His Son and walked this road that seems so impossible to traverse. One thing I kept saying to her over and over again was that He walked before us. He knew this way. He approved it before we got here and we will walk it in faith and trust, fighting to believe His great love for us and His good plan for our lives.
We can already see how God is using Brian and his life and his death.
The pain is also indescribable.
He is and will be faithful.
Pray for this sweet family and their faith families and community.
"...I did not know how to give the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted without giving something of my own soul also."