Friday, April 01, 2011

Celebrating the South -- Observations from a Wake

Road tripping across Louisiana toward Texas, I reflected on the cast of characters that I had encountered the night before at a wake for the 92-year-old uncle of Roger, my best friend. One of the bonds between my friend and me is our roots in small town life. My hometown's population may be ten times his but from what I saw at this gathering (and during my previous visits, one at which we threw a birthday bash for the then 90-year-old uncle), the people are incredibly similar.

Which is why I knew when the man with the khaki pants, cotton shirt and aviator glasses (circa 1979) introduced himself as the husband of a cancer victim, my other friend Geary and I might be in for a lengthy chat. Really, those were his first words to us. His wife had been diagnosed with two different types over the years, and he had spent time helping her during her treatments but he had also been "blessed with the opportunity" to do missionary work in South Korea. He went into great detail about how the teams were set up, what years netted what results, his own success in leading others to Christ (even gave us the numbers but I don't quite remember those), how they have changed the length of their stays through the years and much, much more.

After smiling, nodding, sharing the occasional "hmmm" or "oh, wow" I realized he was going to keep going and going and going. So I finally interrupted to ask for a bathroom break.

"Is this your church?" I inquired. (Bad choice of wording when you are talking to a zealous man.)

"No ..." pausing for effect and looking at me with anticipation that I might know where he was going with his response. I did.

"I know it's God's but are you a member here?" I shifted the words and quickly added, "I need to know where the bathroom is."

He smiled and offered instructions. Not wanting to leave Geary alone for too long and anticipating that the progress of the conversation wasn't going to be shortened by my absence, I grabbed Roger's arm as I walked by, "Get him out of that NOW," I whispered.

When I returned, Roger was still engaged and wanted to introduce me to two teachers from his grade school days. "I'll be delighted to meet them in just a minute, but I'm not kidding, get Geary out of that situation."

Walking Geary over to ostensibly be introduced to the teachers as well, Roger gave us the connect-the-dots introduction of the women that Southerners typically do. I got their professional roles, their family ties, and their impact on Roger's life all in one paragraph. Meanwhile, I look to Geary, "I had a plan for getting you out of that so don't give me that look of abandonment," I cautioned.

"He wanted to know how many souls I'd led to Christ," Geary said. "I told him, 'none.'"

"What did he say to that?"

"That's when Roger pulled me away."

We finished up with the teachers and then Geary and I shifted to different corners of the fellowship hall watching the extended family ... well, fellowship! When the deceased is 92 and there's plenty of tuna fish sandwiches, bbq, chips, colas and homemade cakes and cookies, the night before the burial truly is a celebration of a life well-lived. I took my own personal delight in watching everyone's face as they tried to determine if we were Bumgardners, Badgelys or some other branch of the family tree.

Geary and I tried to do what we could for the family members we knew and beyond that tried to stay out of the way. While it was nice to take it down a notch and stop in at Roger's cousin and the deceased's daughter's house nearby, we were fading fast. The hours on the road on top of a few hours of work and then interacting with strangers was doing me in. Finally we headed to Roger's sister's house.

Roger has a large family and through the years, I've met them all but know some better than others. We had never stayed at Betty's house before. I was rather shocked that we were now.

Betty and her husband haven't always embraced the reality of her brother. Betty is rather fundamental in her faith. Roger is gay. She spent many years ignoring that fact and the fact that her son has had a partner for a decade at least. So when we took our rooms -- mine with beautiful lace and pillows and dolls and the boys' with photos around the room, I was shocked. Note .. the boys' room.

The next day we were greeted with coffee and a wonderful breakfast of biscuit, rolls, bacon and venison sausage. Afterwards, while Geary was outside taking photos, he was greeted with much more.

"Geary, I owe you an apology," Betty told him as he snapped away at the gorgeous azaleas in her yard. "I've not always been that nice to you."

Geary, in reporting this back to me later, said he paused and was about to deflect her statement when she added through tears, "But for you to drive so many hours to be with Roger and his family, well that says so very much."

Geary thanked her and reminded her that we all love in different ways and we need only love each other as best we can.

The drive back -- which was filled with dogwood sightings and tons more azaleas -- gave me time to reflect on these two wake encounters.

And I'm pretty sure ... Geary's sacrifice of time, gas money, and energy was every bit as strong a witness as our missionary friend's many, many encounters along the Roman Road in South Korea.

Do I hear a hallelujah out there somewhere?