I have not posted here in a month. I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.” Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.
Mostly in this month I’ve been working hard. The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks. All were friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group. One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine. I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal. Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could. He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service. The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence. We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.
Then there was Bob Daily. He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call. He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.
Bobby was a rock-solid friend, loyal to the end, and always the first for a gathering at the beach or lake. He loved all kinds of music, so the service began with “Tishomingo Blues” from “Prairie Home Companion” and “What a Wonderful World,” a popular wedding song, my bluegrass band Shades Mountain Air singing “I’ll Fly Away,” “My Soul’s Desire” and “I Will Not Forget You.” If we had done a little Jimmy Buffett, it would have been perfect. We ended with a hymn and the choir singing “Still, Still, Still,” his favorite Christmas song that ends our Christmas Eve service every year. It was the last time I saw him alive, and he was singing with the choir.
Being in the work I am, not far off from a funeral director, I am around a lot of death and dying. Oddly, because of that, existential clarity is not hard for me. Death and dying aren’t some sudden interruption. They’re a regular part of most of my weeks. I tell stories about people who are gone.
Ancestors are important. Stories are the link. You tell them and you open up the world and make it larger. So maybe it is fitting that I start this next blogging phase with reflections on death.
I hesitate to tell this, but there is something about a funeral, a weird truth, that I have felt over and over again. I feel very alive. Maybe it’s the contrast, or the raw emotions—laughs are heartier, the spark between spouses more intense, and hearts are broken all around. The nonsense of daily living vanishes for just a little while and we heal in one conversation or a simple hug some stupid pettiness held for twenty years.
It’s an odd little interruption of the delusion of eternal stability, this death thing. A lot worth writing about, and sometimes as the service ends and everyone gathers to eat and cry one more time and promise to stay close, you have this longing to stay here. You hope it will never end, but of course it does. Widgets have to be located, websites visited, children picked up and meetings held. If only, I think, this delicious joy of being alive could stay with me all the time! I would sit in some boring meeting and be intensely aware that eternity is right next to us. Someone sitting here won’t be here next year. Surely there is something more important to talk about, while we have the time…
Some people journal. I write songs. Here is one about the strange journey of dying called “Michael.”
7 thoughts on “Standing Next to Death”
Good work Gary. Glad you are back. Missed your insights. Thanks of sharing “Michael”
And great to hear from my old golfing buddy (although it is an insult to the game to call what we did golf!). Miss you, man. Thanks.
Thanks for sharing from your heart and your pain. “Michael” is a beautiful and moving song that allowed me to dwell at the threshold just for a moment and to remember the things that are important.
I thank you for that moment to reflect, Gary, and for your eloquence in describing that feeling of being alive I’ve sensed in so many solemn moments in a way that holds it up to a light my mind can see. Happy New Year to you!
Thank you, Mike, to a new and welcome friend. I am anticipating a trip up your way this semester sometime to come see a certain daughter-teacher and do something on writing and songwriting for her class. If you would want me to, I would be honored to come do the same at your school, most especially for the joy of meeting you!
Gary, thanks for your warm and well-stated wisdom. This is why I love being a chaplain. The preciousness of life is always in focus. The daily holy encounters with strangers heightens the holiness of the ordinary with family and friends and co-workers, who, after 21 years here, are friends.
Thank you, Eileen. You are, indeed, one who walks near burning bushes daily. Blessings to our dear, dear friend.
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