I know where I was 19 years ago this afternoon...standing in a cemetery in Nashville, TN, on what may have been the coldest day I ever have had to endure. I was thankful for my robe as I read passages from the Psalms, a snippet of John and said a prayer. Beside me was Bill Malone, a good friend of the deceased, one suit sleeve stuffed into his pocket on account of the drunk driver that hit him as he worked on his stalled car beside the interstate. It is a wonder Bill was not killed.
Of his friend, the one we were helping to bury, Bill said, "I can only say I envy him, that Ray got there first. We have spent so many days, so many hours, so many times talking about heaven, about the great reunion to come, about being free from the pain and heartache, the disappointment and distress, about being at last with Jesus. Go in peace, Ray," Bill said. "I will be there with you before long."
And he was.
Ray, of course, was my father. It was on this day in 1988 that I preached his funeral, presided at his graveside service, endured the bitter cold of the cloudless afternoon and the, if anything, colder reality that Dad was gone and gone, away from me and away from any chance we might have had for some kind of deep reconciliation. Which is not to say we were estranged, not exactly. It was just hard, our relationship. Like dads' and sons' can be.
He was proud of me, I think. He resented me, I know for a fact. He loved me in his own way. He rarely said it in ways I could hear. He was never pleased with me, and never accepted that I was proud of him. He was too ashamed of himself to believe anyone could love him: a wife, children, Jesus. He was a sad, sad man in many many ways: unhappy in marriage, in vocation, in almost any way you could imagine. Emasculated in the flesh, first situationally and then by surgery, he seemed also emasculated in spirit. He excoriated his lack of faith, his lack of happiness, his lack of success. He excoriated others who had some of what he did not. His expression, most times, was one of disgust. That disgust started with himself but it by no means ended there.
Still, he could laugh. Had a great sense of humor--on occasion. He was never violent, never just mean. He just seemed tired all the time. And sick.
Illness became his first best identity.
He died deep in Advent, and I have come to believe that his life was a kind of parable of Advent. He longed for Jesus' appearing, as Paul says it in II Timothy 4, and even if Daddy could not see the ways in which Jesus had come--did not have eyes to recognize how the whole world is aflame with the presence of God--he had faith in the flame to come, the purging, purifying flame which would burn away the bad memories of his life, the dross of his existence, and deliver him into the light of God's eternal life.
His hope was the only warmth we felt that afternoon, I think. At least it was my warmth as the wind whipped my robes around my legs and cut to the deeps of my flesh.
I go to that place now and again, when I am back home. I find his grave by sighting coordinates between the chapel and the statue of Jesus. There he is, beneath the ground beneath my feet, but not there at all. Resting, waiting still. Either for the resurrection of the dead which will complete his journey, or for the deaths of his beloved ones that will complete ours--either way that we might all enjoy together what together we prayed and preached and hoped that cold afternoon all those years ago.
Rest in peace, Ray. Rest in peace, Daddy. I miss you.