Perhaps my earliest memory. Not a memory, so much as an image. Standing in a cemetery, while my godfather’s oldest son was laid to rest. I was four. This past week, I returned home. The curse of sin had once more done it’s deathly work. I was honored to stand with his remaining son. We watched again as mortal remains were lowered into the blessed ground. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Father’s burying children, husbands burying wives. Children burying fathers. Three times I’ve been to that cemetery.
The first time, I was too young to really know what was happening. A son, who should have had his life in front of him, was taken too soon. And a little boy, curious, who was allowed to view things far beyond his years. Parents standing nervously, hoping he didn’t say or do anything inappropriate.
Over the years, I would spend weekends at their house. My godfather could never get the name of my favorite stuffed animal right. “Gorgeous George?” “Georgie George?” Every time I visited, there were new names, but never the right one. Our little game. Wrestling in the living room. Ohh, I lost. Jeff, a few years older than I, but still a kid, would let me join in the football, street hockey, and stickball games. “Car!” For a suburban kid, the street was an exciting place to play. At church on Sunday morning, I would go back to my parents. But I would see him in the back of the church. He was an usher. Another image. Him, standing there, hands folded. One hand gripping the wrist of the other. It was the cool way of folding hands.
A decade after my first visit to that cemetery, I made my second. Maundy Thursday of my freshman year. My godmother, after long years of poor health, was placed in the ground next to her son. The image that day is of the church. Seeing my godfather sitting with his younger, now only, son. Watching them walk past my pew at the end of the service. I only realized last week, it was my last visit to the church where I was baptized. Closed now. Another casualty of the fall of Detroit. The house I used to visit is gone now, too. An evening of nostalgia turned to horror as Google Street view recorded the brutal truth: The long street filled with homes and families has only three buildings left. Driveways into weeded fields are all that remains. Where death does its work, decay follows.
Almost three decades after the second visit, I saw that hallowed ground again. My godfather: The man who spoke on my behalf at my baptism. Besides blood, what bond could be more worthy of honor? My godfather: The man who always laughed that, as a child he got me to dig a trench in his yard to run electric wires to the garage, and all I got in exchange was Pepsi. I could never get him to believe that I liked digging holes. Still do. I would have brought the Pepsi if he’d have asked. Good memories, tinged with sadness now, because they remind me of what has been lost. He could never learn the name “Curious George”, even though it was printed on the stuffed animal – one of the few I have kept. My godfather. He would roughhouse in a way that my more gentle and cerebral father did not. Most importantly, despite losing a son and a wife, he was never heard to utter a single bitter word. I have known many lesser men. Given that level of loss, I might very well be one of them.
He trusted. Not in his own capacity for happiness, but in the blood of Jesus. He knew that “only sleeping” was the unwritten words on the tombstones that said, “Loving son”, “Loving wife and mother.” He knew that they had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. He knew he would see them again. Now he does. Death is still a terrible thing. Tears are shed because this is not how God ordered things when he created them. We cry because there is loss that is outside of God’s design. We live disordered lives. And those lives must end. But, by the grace of God, the new tombstone, the one that says “Loving husband and father”, will also have the unwritten words. There isn’t enough room on the tombstone to say everything that could, everything that should, be said. But that’s ok. Because the marker is only temporary. And the lambs book of life contains the words that can’t fit on a tombstone. My Uncle Jerry’s name is in it.
With his trademark sense of humor, he always signed his name for me “The Godfather.” He took the job seriously. Don’t think he made light of Baptism. He didn’t. He didn’t take himself seriously. The trademark laugh, loud and often. And one day, I will hear it again. He knew that. It’s why he stood at the font and spoke for a little boy who couldn’t yet speak for himself. Because of the promise. A promise that he saw more clearly in this world than a lot of people. I pray that someday I will see it as clearly as he did. That my life will resound with the joy of that promise as much as his did. But that’s a tall order. He lost the things in this world he loved the most. But he did not lose hope. He was able to rejoice, even in his grief, because he saw the promise more clearly than most men. He believed it more deeply.
The good news for me, is that even if I can’t have the strength of faith in this world that he had, even if I can’t understand the blessings of Baptism as well as he did, I will one day. And that day is not far off. Another unwritten word. “Joyful reunion.”
Rest in Peace. See you soon.