A good friend died Sunday, after 2 weeks of no food or water. He succeeded in “accelerating” his death date, a goal developed perhaps out of love for his wife and the preservation of her back as well as his disgust with living in a body that no longer exuded the physical prowess he felt that he had in earlier years. Being a retired word-cobbling preacher and somewhat legendary persona in his denomination, he also feared losing his ability to speak.
This social animal thrived on the attention of multitudes in a sanctuary, as well as the ear of one individual soaking up his stories of participation in historical civil rights marches. He reveled in the smile of a Denny’s waitress as he drew her into his circle of needs, and he enticed smiling nurses and doctors to his side at the same instant that he demanded to be told his prognosis. This master of exposition created the week of a lifetime as he started his fast for death. With the return of the multitudes, not seated in a sanctuary but trickling in front of his lift chair, he shared repeatedly, “I’m having so much fun, and I’m so happy now– I want to do this again!”
Teen daughter enjoyed this “crazy old guy,” until he talked to her so much that she wanted to disappear into her Kindle, but she didn’t, and he complimented her for that. The Rev. B was attracted to teen daughter’s aura. It seemed to be a combination of her beautiful curly red hair and her unflappable sense of certainty that charmed him. He observed her facial expressions in church where she soaked in the scene, yet remained nonchalant. He was sure she was going to be important some day, and he wanted to play a role in helping her to develop her potential in a humanistic vein.
Tween boy, on the other hand, stumped Rev. B. Having frequently confessed his failure to be present for his own 4 children, he wanted to be a present force in both of my children’s lives, but he wasn’t sure just how. He was stunned to watch Tween boy play a Wii game, which he interpreted only as violent and anti-social. He wanted children to learn to interact with people, not technology. He apologized during his lift-chair-good-bye to Tween boy, saying that he had not given him due attention. The oversight had been triggered a few days earlier by an unforeseen hug and kiss goodbye from Tween boy that brought tears to Rev. B’s eyes.
This limelight king had a surprising emotional sensitivity. By simple observation he could read my mind quite well. Even so, I was surprised to hear him tell the story of his teenage suicide attempt over a girl. That he could be wounded by the revelation that he was not the object of her affection, but just another name on her list, revealed his delicate heart. The suicide method he chose was reflective of his strong will–driving over a cliff at 70 mph, and upon failing, trying to stab himself with a pen knife. Like in so many of his stories, the tragic comedy highlighted the depth of human nature embodied in all of us.
For me, I feel the loss of a rare and fearless friend. I could count on his facial expressions to coincide with his true thoughts. In that characteristic, we were kindred spirits, and he knew it. This square peg knows that that square peg was irreplaceable.
His humor and impudence were not lost in his old age. He formed and flew a paper airplane during an organ recital we attended together, reminding me of the silliness I grew up with in my own family of musicians. Neither of us disguised our disappointment with the quality of the organ concert and both of us assuaged our disgust with humor and mischievous promises to find a better venue the next time around.
But there was not a next time, and when he tried to expound on his reasons for accelerating his death the week before he started the fast, he read my tears and comments accurately– I did not approve. Oh, I understood. It was just not my way. And that was okay with both of us.
Two days before his death, at his bed, his daughter and I joked about a mutual friend, and he couldn’t quite hear what we were laughing about. He said that he wanted “to giggle with us and be a part of it”. A little later he explained that the connections between words were getting lost to him, yet he still was able to stutter with parched lips, “I think I’m on a road to a new manifestation, but I’m not quite over the hill yet.”
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night came to mind, a day after his death.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Maybe The Rev. B. didn’t rage enough for my liking, but I only knew him the last 2 years of his 84. He’d already died and been resuscitated before I ever met him. He fell off his bicycle and mo-ped at least 3 times while I knew him. Maybe he spent most of his years raging, but at the end, he found how to let it go, “a new manifestation.”
A light bulb went off the other day, as I thought about what Rev. B would do in a particular situation. I declared to teen daughter, “I have a creative brainstorm! I’m going to create a shirt with WWBD on the front, and Long Live Rev. B. on the back.” I waited in anticipation and suspense for her reaction.
“Mom, the church people would disapprove. You shouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t give a damn what they think, ” I retorted, “and Rev. B. wouldn’t either. He would approve.”
There was silence, and I thought the conversation had ended.
“Well, if you do that Mom, you have to let me design it, because you would mess it all up and make it ugly.”
That night she designed our shirts online. They are on order.
Long Live Rev. B.