I arrived at the church yesterday about twenty minutes before the service was to begin. I would guess close to four hundred people were already in the sanctuary. A giant blown up picture of my friend’s father was on an easel and a folded and framed American flag honoring his military service was on the table beside. Various sprays of flowers covered most of the platform. A string quartet was playing, alternating and playing with the pianist. I recognized the melody of one of the songs, “All Beautiful the March of Days,” a hymn I have come to love over our years in New England. The final verse says,
O Thou from Whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,The minister offered opening words and the eulogy, and then described how the service would go: each of five different speakers would share their memories of this man they loved. The first was his friend of forty-five years. The two of them had been accompanists for the church, had written software together at their job, had shared the kind of memories that bind people together. His words were both carefully chosen and unabashedly filled with emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a beautiful articulation of what it means to be friends.
Thyself the vision passing by in crystal and in rose,
Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
In ever changing words of light, the wonder of Thy Name.
What followed was one of the most amazing things I have ever heard: a flute choir. My friend’s mother is the orchestra conductor at the church (it’s a big church) and has the wisdom and creativity to work with the instrumentalists she has in the congregation. There were thirteen flutists, so she created a flute choir. They played “He Shall Feed His Flock” and it was transcendent.
As a congregation, we sang,
When peace like a river attendeth my way,Then the family members spoke -- a brother-in-law, a granddaughter, a son – each one giving a different view of this man they loved, each one telling the same story of a person who loved to share of himself and what he had. Another friend spoke and then we sang,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
Go in peace, live in grace, trust in the arms that will hold you,I’ve written before about how we measure our days. As I left the service, I couldn’t help but think of “Seasons of Love,” the song from RENT.
Go in peace, live in grace, trust God’s love.
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutesI felt honored to have been in the room.
five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure measure a year?
in daylights in sunsets in midnights in cups of coffee
in inches in miles in laughter in strife
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure measure a life
how about love
Several of us went to dinner after the service and reception, mostly to have a chance to be together. I was the only one at the table who had not lost at least one of my parents. The talk turned to what it meant to live with that loss. Each person was at a different place on that journey; each one had a different answer in that moment. I felt like the same conversation on a different night would bring different responses. I also felt comforted to know that when it’s my turn to live through a day like yesterday, I know who will gather around me.
I got home about midnight, went to sleep quickly, and woke up this morning early so I could meet my parents for breakfast in Hillsboro, about seventy miles south of Dallas. Since I was in Texas, I opted for migas, a wonderful mixture of eggs, cheese, salsa, jalapenos, onions, bell peppers, and chorizo served, of course, with tortillas. The only thing missing was a side of frijoles. Man, it was good.
My parents are just back from a week in London, where they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They had a blast seeing shows, wandering into little restaurants to eat, and – Dad’s favorite – visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral. He couldn’t say enough about the beauty of the building and the wonderful priest they talked to there.
“It’s not a museum,” he said, “It’s a functioning church.” Then he said the words I was waiting for, the superlatives he uses to describe the things that move him: “It was the most beautiful church I have ever seen.” He loves to describe whatever he is doing or seeing or tasting as the best ever, from cathedrals to cornbread. It’s part of what makes him who he is. It will be one of the things I say first when I begin to remember him after he is gone.
As I left the IHOP in Hillsboro, I tried to imagine what it would be like driving to meet just one of them, either my mom or dad, without the other. I couldn’t do it. I also can’t imagine what it feels like to be my friend’s mother, waking up today – as she has for the last week – by herself after fifty-three years of waking up together. I talked to Ginger for most of the drive to Hillsboro and half of the drive back because I miss her and I’ve only been gone a couple of days. I look at my grieving friend and I think of Ginger’s words to me as I was in the depths of my depression: “I can see you’re in pain and I’m with you; I just don’t understand.” It was profoundly enough for me that she stayed, even when she didn’t understand.
One other lyric: an old Rich Mullins song that came to mind as I sat here typing, “Hello Old Friends.”
Hello old friendsI’m off now for a drink with my friend to clear the air, tighten the bonds, and tell our stories again, even as we write new chapters remembering what cannot be taken away.
There's really nothing new to say
But the old, old story bears repeating
And the plain old truth grows dearer every day
When you find something worth believing
Well, that's a joy that nothin' could take away