Saturday, November 25, 2017

While You're in the World

Today, a small circle of those who loved him best gathered at Sweet Gum Point to say goodbye to Doug Jester. Only a week before, most of the family had been in to celebrate an early Thanksgiving and my granddad's 90th birthday. I was too sick to go, but Uncle Doug, as always, added insight and laughter to the festivities. He died the next day of a heart attack, leaving behind a family bereaved and shaken.

My dad, long regarded as the 'designated religious person' of the family, met with my Aunt Binnie and Doug's sister Diane and led a sweet service that honored the man we all miss terribly. My cousins played a slideshow of wonderful old photos as Elton John's "Your Song" accompanied the memories flashing before us. We read from Wisdom and Matthew and were reminded how Doug's life was full of generosity and compassion. We shared stories - funny and heartbreaking - as we laughed through our tears. Doug's 3-year-old granddaughter Lily chimed in with her little voice now and then, giving everyone permission to smile.

Aunt Binnie, devoid of her soulmate, managed to speak beautifully of Doug's love for his family. Throughout the years, no matter what, he and Binnie would constantly tell one other, "You're my everything." They meant it and lived it. 

Binnie reminded her three sons how much Doug adored them. Brooks, Matt, and Sam carry so much of their sweet dad with them. They have the same handsome features and the same sense of humor. Those men love their mother with the same gorgeous blend of tenderness and fierceness. And they honor their significant others, Jaclyn and Jackie, the way their dad modeled so well. 

She spoke of Doug's absolute delight in being known as "Pappy" to Lily and her soon-to-be-born sister Molly. He was everything a grandfather should be: fun and funny, adventurous and caring, goofy and brilliant. It's unthinkable to imagine a world where my cousins' children grow up without the big hugs and sincere love of their Pappy.

My grandmother said, "He always loved us like we were his real parents. And we always loved him too." Indeed. Doug was a rock for them, driving them to one doctor's appointment after another. He was a natural caregiver, and his love for his parents-in-law was evident in everything he did.

After my cousins and brother shared stories of silly high jinks, Doug's brother-in-law ended with the lyrics from Grateful Dead's "And We Bid You Goodnight."

Even when a loved one knows they're dying, we often don't say everything we want as we offer our goodbyes. But when we lose someone so dear and vibrant without warning, the grief is mingled with another kind of loss. We all know Doug loved us, and we're all certain he knew we loved him. There really wasn't much left unsaid. Still, if I had been given the chance, I would have said something like this:

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being a real friend to my parents. I've grown up listening to stories of the fun and mischief you found yourselves in. In a world where true friends can be hard to find, you were always there for them. You were a source of encouragement and wisdom. You partied as carefree hippies together, learned how to raise families together, and grew up to be exceptional grandparents together. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for loving my aunt with such openness and grace. You modeled a love I'm still looking for. I know it exists because you were proof. You were always generous with your love, sacrificial in your decisions, and true in your devotion. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being the kind of father that anyone would have been proud of. Your three sons are living testaments to your success as a dad. You loved them more than life itself. Anyone could see it. You reveled in parenthood. You taught your boys how to play, how to love their mom, how to live life to the fullest. And your fatherly love didn't stop with your own sons. It extended to countless young people over the years.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being over the moon about being a grandfather. Your delight in Lily was precious. Your glee over the news of a new grandbaby filled our hearts. Your love for them inspired us to love better ourselves. Memories of your goofiness and silly magic tricks and little adventures will live on in the stories we tell your grandchildren.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for honoring your elders. My grandparents' lives are richer because you loved them and cared for them heroically. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for embracing your daughter-in-law and soon-to-be daughter-in-law. You always made the circle wider, always made room for people. You loved Jaclyn and Jackie like your own. Seeing those sincere, sweet bonds gave me hope that the hard work of blending families and lives could actually be beautiful. You saw those young women as gifts, and you treated them that way.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for giving my brother a fine example. As a man, as a skilled artisan, as a father - you supplied him with extra motivation. He will honor your spirit all his days. Thank you for loving his little girl - for getting down on the ground and making her laugh. For being the same sweet uncle to her you always were to us.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for seeing me. You always took the time to relate beautifully with each person in a way that made them feel special. You always cared about what was going on, what I was trying to create, what I hoped to do and be. I can't remember a time when we were together that you didn't ask me to draw you a picture. I should have drawn you something every time you asked. You were always the family chronicler. Most of our photos and all of our videos were created by you. I'm thankful for those images of young Lindsay, shyly sharing a painting, your narrator voice cooing kind, encouraging words. I always imagined that if I ever fell in love, you'd take my beau for a boat ride, share some beer, and agree about most everything but politics. You'd come back laughing, having added him to our circle. You'd wink at me and give me one of your big bear hugs. You know, I'm going to miss all that was and all that could have been. But I'm also going to rejoice in the 34 years I had with you in my life. I will treasure the memories, and I will honor your gentle spirit all my days. We all will. I love you, Uncle Doug.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Reflection of Your Life's Kindness and Beauty

May your leave-taking be gracious,
Enabling you to hold dignity
Through awkwardness and illness.

May you see the reflection
Of your life's kindness and beauty

In all the tears that fall for you.

-from "For the Dying" by John O'Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Last night, I attended a farewell party for a dear former colleague. For a few hours, I was surrounded by friends I hadn't seen in months and was overwhelmed with hugs and well wishes. I was swept up in waves of gratitude as teenagers gushed about new friends and schools, immediately taking me into their confidence once again. I beamed as beautiful old women held my face in their hands and told me how much they missed seeing my smile every week. For a short while, my soul found a safe spot to settle.

As the shindig was wrapping up, I got a text: Pray. This may be it.

And then I knew. All day, my heart had been heavy. I had woken up with John O'Donohue's poetic blessing "For the Dying" on my mind. My Aunt April, who had privately dealt with cancer since the winter, was moments from death. I told the last few lingering friends, all pastors. We stood together in a rag-tag circle, sharing in the gift of communal grief. None of them had met April, but they knew I adored her, and that was enough. I told stories of her passion, her goodness, her grace. We hugged and parted ways as they spoke words of love over my family.

As soon as I started driving away, I got the call. My dad didn't have to say anything. I told him how sorry I was. His love for his baby sister had always been so complete, so whole. I told him I would come over later.

Then I called my buddy Charlie. We already had plans to hang for a bit. I didn't realize I was crying so hard until he told me to pull over, that he would come and get me. That one thoughtful gesture - authentic and brotherly - eased the tension in my chest. I told him I could drive, and I'd see him soon.

Before I pulled in to Charlie's, I saw him and our best friend Thomas waiting for me by the curb. They were illuminated by street lights and shop windows. They looked to me like angelic sentinels - all at once divine and completely human. I wasn't two steps from my car before I was wrapped in a bear hug, embraced by strong arms and the true love of soul friends.

Upstairs, Charlie's wife met me with a hug just as powerful. For months, Susan had shed tears over a woman she would never know. A mother only nine years younger than April, she held such immense empathy. Understanding better than most, she realized how unfair it all was - leaving this earth with a grieving husband and young children behind.

We sat together up on the roof. They let me talk and cry. They made me laugh and poured me a drink. My friends gave me strength for the journey ahead. I left them, feeling fortified.

My dad was playing clips of "The Pride of West Virginia" - WVU's marching band - as I walked into my parents' home. April, a devoted alumnus, loved the Mountaineers. My mama regaled us with stories of college-aged April having too much fun at football games. Earlier in the evening, together with my brother and his daughter, they lit a candle for April. We spoke of the sensitivity of my eight-year-old niece. We cried for April's darling husband Tom. We mourned for my cousins, Olivia and Cameron. The depth of their pain must feel bottomless.

In the wee hours of the morning, I drove home. Then I dreamt of April, sitting in the wingback chair at my grandparents' house. For a brief moment, I was transported to a world that no longer exists.

The last time I saw April was a few weeks ago. Her husband and kids were home. We laughed at old photos and reminisced about days gone by. We prayed for a miracle.

Tonight, my dad said that a world without April is inconceivable. He's right. I cannot fathom an existence where I won't ever again feel her embrace or marvel at her wit or revel in her perfect laugh.

When I was a baby, April would spend part of her summer with my parents. I was ten when April had her first child. I started spending summers with April, Tom, and Olivia. Cameron joined the fun five years later. I spent every summer with them until my late teens.

Watching April, I learned how to be an aunt, a sister, a friend. Her love for her family and friends knew no limit. Her home was always a haven for the weary. Her light empowered all of us, even during the darkest of times.

This weekend, I'll go to Virginia and say goodbye to the woman I was sure would outlast us all. My cousins and I will somehow manage to laugh through our tears. I'll hug my sweet uncle and tell him that there has never been a more sparkling example of a devoted husband. Our far-flung family will gather once again for a funeral as we cling to the ties that bind. We'll offer prayers of thanksgiving, grateful that for a while, we were loved by a woman of grace and valor.
April, delighting in her family, at Cameron's last high school play.