The better man

This is for my friend, Willie.

I wish I’d known Willie better. This is spectacularly easy for me to say in hindsight, but no less true for being obvious. Willie was a friend, and someone I’d lost touch with. He passed away, suddenly, a couple of weeks ago.

He used to go to our church, and he represented the best of Christ, and the Christian faith. He was positive, loved to smile, loved to pray, and loved to worship. He played a mean set of drums, even if he struggled with sixteenth notes. He had a childlike way to his faith, but that made him more of a man, for putting it out there so obviously, and so boldly, in a way that humbled anyone who knew him. He showed love in the most biblical sense, caring much more for others than himself. His prayers were honest and bracing and reverential, and you could FEEL his belief, and how it fueled his love for God and others.

He and his family had stopped coming to church a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t sure why. It didn’t really matter when we heard the news.

I was at church a couple of weeks ago, and was going to be doing the announcements, and a prayer. The pastor told me that Willie had passed away, suddenly, the day before, and asked if I could mention that in the announcements.

I wasn’t sure how to react. My instincts warred; sorrow and shock (Willie? no, not him, please God no), resolve and certainty (You do this, hombre, you can handle it), and the barest hint of pragmatism (do the daycamp stuff first, don’t dwell on this but don’t skip over it, maybe a brief break before the kids come up).

I talked with others, let the pragmatist and the planner in me take the lead as we broke from the pre-service meeting. There wasn’t time to think about it, about the loss, about a good man, a better man, removed from this plane. The task was the coping mechanism for me.

Even doing the announcements, it didn’t quite hit me. Scattered gasps from the congregation after I said it brought me back to the moment, even as the service pressed on, and we carried on with the routine, disrupted by this shock. We weren’t sure how to deal with it; his family wasn’t going to our church any more. Should we say why? How it happened? Was there ever a right way to do it, really?

The breaks and lulls during the service brought it home a little clearer, and I needed some time afterwards to gather myself. I wasn’t ready to face people, who would ask me why, who I would have to converse with, seeing my own grief reflected in them.

I found the grief strange, in a way. It wasn’t as if I knew Willie VERY well. I almost felt I didn’t deserve the grief, that those that knew him better deserved it more, felt the loss more keenly than I ever would. I felt it was selfish. But it didn’t matter. I had to clench my eyes shut to hold back tears, until we were given time after the service to pray.

A church elder watched me mourn, and prayed with me, and I could barely tell him why. He didn’t know Willie, even as he knew me, and wanted to ease my burden. I had no words. I didn’t talk about how faithful, how certain Willie was, about the kind of man I knew him to be. I couldn’t manage it.

“He was the best of us,” I remember stammering out, in between tears. I said it because I believed it, because I knew what Willie was, and what he represented to me. “He was the best of us, and now he’s gone.”

***

I’ve been to funerals before. As family, in the majority of cases: both grandmothers and one grandfather in recent years, our only trips out east being for that reason.

Dennis and I were asked to be pallbearers, and accepted. He felt it like I did: Did we deserve this? Were we close enough to him? Should we have known him better? But it didn’t matter. We were asked, so we did it, without question. If it eased the burden, we would do it.

We gathered before the service, and went over our responsibilities with someone from the funeral home. Not very difficult, as funerals aren’t meant to be performance. Our role was symbolic as much as functional, to bear the coffin over a short distance.

We talked with Willie’s brother Emmanuel briefly; he was a pallbearer as well. No small talk would be sufficient, but silence, sympathy, wouldn’t do either. It was an understanding we all shared, and I flashed back to giving the announcement at church, for a moment: the task was how we were coping. He put on a brave face, we attempted icebreakers and the like, our own conversation merely filling space otherwise occupied by thought. At least, that’s how it was for me.

I watched Emmanuel go into the room where they were displaying the coffin. His reaction, the strength of his grief, nearly broke me, and I had to step out. This was his moment. I’d had mine, before, weeping with a fellow church elder who’d seen my grief.

As amazing as I knew Willie to be, the funeral drove that home even more. Friends and family who’d known him, who we hadn’t seen for some time, had come to grieve, to be sad, to remember this amazing man. Emmanuel, the one I’d seen grieving before, gave a stirring eulogy, honouring the man he’d known, granting us a window into Willie’s soul, shining brighter than we could have.

The pastor did something I hadn’t seen at a funeral, opening up the microphone for people to share stories about Willie. The flood of people didn’t stop, sharing stories I hadn’t heard, reinforcing what I was already certain of.  As a young student, he took new clothes bought for school, and wanted to give them away to the poor. Time spent at the Mustard Seed, sharing his faith. Spending money on buying CDs, giving them to others, and using them to spread his faith.There was so much we will miss about Willie: His generosity, his spirit, his positivity, his faith, his prayers, the way he gave without question, and above all else had devoted his life to God. He was a man worth celebrating, remembering, and mourning.

The service finished, and we watched the family file out. I couldn’t bear to imagine their devastation as I watched their faces, how they leaned on others for support. I went with the other pallbearers, and we did our part, moving the coffin into the car.

Even with several of us carrying it, Willie’s coffin was heavier than I thought it would be.

***

We went up to the graveside in a fairly convoluted funeral procession. In retrospect, taking a line of cars up Deerfoot Trail is rarely a good idea, even in mid-day.

Watching the pastor and funeral workers, all through the day, I marvelled at their professionalism, at how easily they pulled this off. I suppose they would need their mechanisms: if you deal with death on a regular basis, you couldn’t afford to get attached, to know the stories, to grieve with family who were suffering, to get too emotional. You learn the right line between sensitive and stalwart.

I’d never seen a coffin lowered into the ground, and my fascination with the mechanisms was tempered by the heaviness of the day. We could only stand and watch, and remember, a life well lived reduced to watching dirt pile onto a coffin lowered into the ground.

Burying him was different from the other funerals I’d been to. Sad as grandmothers and grandfathers were, closer as I was to them than Willie, it struck me there: Willie was younger than me. Time shouldn’t have come calling for him yet. I remembered doing the announcements, I professed a logical belief in a God with a higher plan, hoping it was a comfort to others, even as I privately raged and wailed against the confusion of God wanting to take this incredible man from the mortal coil before his time. I didn’t understand WHY, and wanted to, so badly.

I write this because Willie’s story is worth remembering, and worth passing on. I grieve for the man, for his family, for his friends, for the incredible loss they feel. But I also grieve for a world that is lessened, for one less generous spirit, for one less true man of God that embodied the best of what Christianity had to offer. I grieve for the better man, for a man we can aspire to be, even if he’s gone to a better place.

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