Here's a throw back from five years ago when I witnessed a humorous exchange made more hilarious by its location: a funeral home.
Originally published April 6, 2011
Technically, the funeral had not yet begun. Sure, people were sitting quietly in their seats and the organist was playing, but the family wasn’t even back yet. (They were taking a break between the visitation and the actual service.) So, really: it hadn’t started.
Still, it was awfully quiet when the somber funeral directors, hands folded behind them, heads bowed, walked solemnly down the aisle to close the casket. It didn’t seem like the ideal time to strike up a conversation.
“They lock the casket,” she said quietly, lifting her frail frame slightly so she could speak directly into the man’s ear. She’d completed at least eight decades of life already, perhaps the last six at this man’s side. The couple sat together at the end of the pew. His suit had seen better days; her white crocheted wrap hung loosely around her shoulders. Both wore bifocals, but only he sported a pair of super-sized hearing aids.
He turned, acknowledging her. “I didn’t hear what’cha said about the casket,” he countered, not as quietly as she.
She lifted herself again. “I said, ‘They lock it.’” She said it a little louder this time then relaxed back into her stooped posture and turned to face the aforementioned casket.
He tilted toward her. “They what?” His voice carried a hint of frustration.
She turned, nearly colliding with his octogenarian earlobe. “They LOCK it,” she said, plenty loud.
“What?” This time, pure aggravation punctuated the man’s question.
Her lips now approached his inner ear. “I said they LOCK the casket,” she replied, all pretense of decorum gone from her tone. “They L-O-C-K it.”
(You see, if someone can’t hear you, for heaven’s sake, spell it. That will clear things right up.)
She was back facing front now, her shoulders drooping just below the pew back. He faced front too, arms crossed. He leaned ever so slightly in her direction, saying, “Huh. Well. That shore’ don’t seem necessary.”
. . . what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. `Matthew 10:27 NRSV
The end of 2007 began a two-year period in which I experienced one loss right after the other. One of the first deaths was Billie Placey, a beloved grandmother in the Sunday morning Bible study class I was teaching. She was a beautiful, young, energetic woman, even in her 80's. The aggressive cancer that gripped her seemed incongruous with her gentle, vibrant spirit. Immediately after her death and for some time following, her absence filled our classroom.
The Sweet By and “Bye”
©2007 Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore
Tonight, Billie Placey left this world for the next; she died at hospice. I saw her yesterday for the last time. When I saw her, we talked about how wonderful heaven would be. “No more tears,” I said, my face close to hers. She smiled, drew a ragged breath, and shook her head, whispering, “No more tears.” “No more pain,” I said, and she echoed my words. “You’re going to be a brand new creation.” “Yes, I am,” she said, peaceful and assured.
And then she caught sight of Jack, standing at the foot of her bed, tears dripping from his nose, his chin. She looked at me and said, “I have a wonderful and gallant husband.”
“Yes you do.”
“I’m going to miss him,” she said, her face folding into a frown as Jack hurried to her side. She reached for him and they snuggled and kissed salty kisses, murmuring sweet everythings to each other.
Jack walked me out and showed me a picture of Billie when she was 18 or 20. “This is what she looked like when we got married,” he said. “It’d she beautiful?” (I’m not sure he saw the difference between that teenager in the picture and the octogenarian dying on the other side of the door.) We stood there, both of us crying. “I’m sorry, Jack, I’m not really holding it together for you today.”
“Well, honey that’s alright,” he said, taking off his glasses and wiping fresh tears on his sleeve before putting his glasses back on. “But, you know, we cry for ourselves. Cause Billie’s going to a better place. She’s going to be better than she’s ever been. She’s going to be great. We’re just crying for ourselves right now because there’s no point in crying for Billie. Billie’s going to be just fine. I just wish I could go with her. . . .”
“I’ve probably only got a couple of months,” George said, drawing in a quick breath and blinking at persistent tears. He lay on his couch, a warm blanket covering him and cozy pillows tucked behind his head and under his feet. “But I’m at peace with it honey, I really am.” George squeezed his eyes closed but the tears seeped out anyway. “I don’t know how I can be at peace, but . . . well . . . yes I do. You know too.”
George loves living—cancer or no cancer—and he’s in no hurry to give this life up for the next. George knows where he’s going; he even has a son and a wife there waiting on him. He doesn’t fear leaving here for heaven; it’s not that. It’s just that . . . well, George loves life. He really, really loves life.
While we were visiting, his daughter brought me a cup of tea and on the tray was a serving of homemade fudge. “Oh, try that fudge!” George encouraged me, “I just made that last week. Oh, and Marilyn?” His daughter returned. “Bring Aileen some of my jelly too. You like jelly don’t you Aileen? I made peach and blackberry.” (Of course I like jelly—particularly the kind you can’t buy in stores.) “Bring her one of each.”
“Have you met my great-grandchildren? They’re downstairs.” I had not. “Of course Ben and Jocelyn--that's just two of them; you know I have eight?” I did not. “I’ve been so blessed.” George smiled, nodding.
“Hey did I tell you? I went to Florida last week.” George's eyes twinkled; he looked like a kid who had pulled a fast one on the adults of the world.
George, in the advanced stages of cancer, had been scheduled for surgery last week. By a fortuitous turn of events, the surgery had to be rescheduled for the end of the week; it just so happened that one of his daughters was Florida bound. George loves Florida.
“What in the world did you do down there?” I asked him, still shaking my head at the wonder of it.
“Mostly what I’m doing right here.” George laughed at himself, gesturing at his comfy set-up. “But it was good just to be near the water.” He sighed, wistful. “You know that’s not like me to sit around.” I knew.
In addition to making culinary delights to share, George has countless other hobbies and avocations. He goes to first run movies, art galleries, and the homeless shelter. He is an avid fisherman, a woodworker of remarkable talent, and a gardener with a bright green thumb. He reads voraciously, maintains his North Asheville home, and attends Asheville’s First Baptist every Sunday he is able, his time-worn, green-covered Living Bible in hand. And he’s planning even now for a Thanksgiving family reunion when he’ll be surrounded by his children and theirs, and theirs.
“I know you are at peace, George, but it’s okay to be sad too.”
My octogenarian friend nodded, tears flowing freely now.
“You really love living don’t you?”
“I really do, honey, I really do.”
Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
(New Living Translation)
Zach, the Palestinian who guided our tour of Israel, knew a little something about aging gracefully. A grandfather who had been considering retirement for months, Zach was hard at work, leading our group of 34 American tourists through his homeland. He walked all over Masada and Qumran in 100° heat. He hiked through Megiddo and strode up and down the ancient streets of Old Jerusalem. All the while, Zach shared his knowledge with us: telling the history of the area, quoting scripture chapter and verse, and recalling vignettes particular to the sites we visited. As far as I know, he never once sat to rest; he walked every step I did.
A month after my trip, my family and my sister’s headed to North Myrtle Beach, my parents’ hometown, for our annual vacation. My brother, Hal, and his family were already there. A few weeks earlier, they had moved back to the area and purchased a home right down the road from our parents.
Unfortunately, things were not going well. Because of a series of complications and botched repair jobs, Hal was still not in his new house. For six weeks, his family of five had been living with our parents while my brother became increasingly frustrated with the work crews he’d hired to make his home safe for his family. As we sat around Mother’s dinner table one night talking over my brother’s predicament, the doorbell rang.
“It’s Mr. Rothman,” Mother announced. “Come in Dick; have some supper.”
Mr. Rothman has been a family friend for 25 years (he watched my brother grow up). He passed retirement age at least 15 years ago. Since that time, he has nursed his beloved wife through Alzheimer’s, becoming her daily visitor when he made the gut-wrenching decision to place her in a nursing home. In addition to spending hours with his wife (who long ago had stopped recognizing him), he visited the other residents of the home. Mr. Rothman brought sunshine to the lonely, even when he was heartbroken with loneliness himself. More than ten years after she became ill, Mr. Rothman’s wife drew her last earthly breath, while her devoted husband looked on, weeping.
Also during the last 15 years, Dick Rothman has been running his own business. An electrician and an expert in air conditioning repair, Mr. Rothman has plenty of opportunities to stay busy. So by 9:00 every morning, Dick Rothman is out making his rounds, visiting customers who’ve relied on him for years.
“Hey, Hal,” Mr. Rothman began that night, “I’ve been thinking about that job you’ve got going on over there at your house.“ He had been over helping my brother with odd jobs while a larger company had replaced all of the duct work in the house and then worked to get the air conditioning running again. The company, though it had come highly recommended, seemed to be botching the job.
“Here’s what they’ve done,“ Mr. Rothman said, taking a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and drawing on a table napkin. Hal nodded in agreement. “And here’s what they should have done.“ He drew a different diagram.
“Uggh!” my brother groaned, “I knew it! I knew they were not doing it right.” Dejected, Hal slumped as he propped his elbows on the table and covered his forehead with his hands.
And then Mr. Rothman laughed aloud. “Oh now, Hal,” he said, “I didn’t come tell you this to get you worried. Let’s worry about it tomorrow if they don’t fix it.” He folded his hands in his lap, smiled and shook his head, seeming to recall some distant memory. “’Wait to worry.’ I’ve got that written all through my Bible. ‘Wait to Worry.’ I have to remind myself of that. But the thing is, we’ve got plenty of time to worry.” He patted my brother affectionately. “Let’s worry later.”
Hal knowing Mr. Rothman was right, laughed with his friend--a friend more than four decades older than he, a friend who had reached out to him and pulled him out of his despair.
“The olive tree never dies,“ Zach said. No matter what it has been through, no matter how old it gets, the olive tree keeps bearing fruit. Just like Zach. Just like Dick Rothman.*
On November 6, 2014, Dick Rothman celebrated his 90th birthday. Two days later, he passed from this world into the arms of his Savior, Jesus. Hal's air conditioning still works just fine.