Monday, May 15, 2006

"Living in Victory," Chapter 17

Copyright 2006 Terry F. Phillips Sr.
All rights reserved

Chapter 17
The funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, so I made a rare mid-week trip to Victory.
I drove to Indiana on Tuesday, so I could attend the visitation Tuesday night.
Betty agreed I needed to make the trip Tuesday and she opened her home to me once again.
That evening, she also invited me to stay and eat with her.
“This is a great dinner, Betty,” I said. “Beats what I’m used to eating at school.”
She looked at me with a sly smile.
“Thank you,” she said. “And, remember, in the country, it’s supper, not dinner. Dinner is the noon meal. We eat supper at night.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
After supper, she cleared the table and set the dishes in the sink.
“We’ll leave those for later,” she said, glancing at the clock on the kitchen wall. “I’ll get ready and you may escort me to the funeral home.”
I had planned to go alone, but welcomed the company. Funerals always made me uncomfortable and, since I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know too many people, I welcomed the company.
Victory didn’t have a funeral home, of course. We made the trip to Waynetown in about 20 minutes. I kept watching Betty to see if my driving made her nervous, but it didn’t.
At the funeral home, we found a spot to park right on 25, in front of the place. The evening wasn’t too warm, but you could smell spring in the air. At least, that’s what I was told. And, it’s true. In Indiana, you can smell spring as it approaches.
We made our way into the new-ish looking funeral home, turned right at the end of the short hall and then I could see an organ in a room with a low wall to the right and people gathering in a larger room straight ahead.
Betty stopped to sign the guest register, so I did, too.
I was pleasantly surprised. Although everyone spoke quietly, the were not in mourning as I counted mourning. No one laughed, of course, but it could have been a church social function, the way everyone clustered in small groups to visit.
“No wonder they call it ‘visitation’,” I thought.
Betty introduced me to various people in the room who had come to pay their respects.
I made small talk as they asked about my college and what I was studying.
I didn’t know whether they would be disappointed I was studying to be a journalist or glad I wasn’t trying to be a minister, but they were all polite and even warm as we chatted.
We got in line and soon came my turn to greet Mark’s parents.
I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I felt the beginnings of a panic attack. I never had a panic attack before, but this surely must be what it was like.
Strangely enough, (and a little embarrassing to write), I turned to Betty for advice and direction. I was supposed to the The Pastor. I was supposed to have all the answers. But I didn’t and I almost missed her direction when it came.
She said nothing! She just smiled, looked into Mark’s parents’ eyes, shook their hands and moved on to the casket. I decided (properly, it turned out) to do the same.
Years later, I was talking to a minister who related this story to me.
His mother had died when he was 11 years old. It was a terrible thing. He never really got over the loss. But the person who gave him the most comfort in the midst of that tragedy was his best friend, Punk.
Punk was a neighbor boy; they had grown up together. When the time came for the funeral visitation, Punk was there with his parents, but never said a word. He just shook hands with the boy who had lost his mother.
“But, he knew,” the minister said. “I could tell he understood what I was going through!” And that was enough.
Betty and I moved on to the casket. It seemed strange, seeing Mark’s body laying there like that. It was like him, but somehow different. Not just the suit, not just the tie, not just the complexion, which looked much better in death than it did on that day he laughed so hard when I stepped in a hole, over my head in the creek. He was different.
It dawned on me the next day, in time for me to get it into my notes that Mark wasn’t really there. He was gone. Like an empty shell (a nut shell, I thought and then decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to say in a funeral sermon) Mark was gone, but his casing was still there.
I worried – a lot – the night after we drove back to Betty’s.
“Now, don’t you worry,” she said in the car on the way back to Victory. “Everything will be all right. Mark’s parents are strong people. They will make out all right.”
That night, I excused myself early instead of watching the little black and white TV with my hostess. I went to bed, taking my Bible, the Minister’s Manual and a pad of paper and pen with me.
I tried to put into words what I thought the family would want to hear during the funeral.
I looked up the suggested Bible texts in the Minister’s Manual and used the ones I thought appropriate.
I didn’t know Mark well, but likened him to King David, who preferred living in the outdoors with his sheep to being in a crowd.
“Mark was like that, at least to some extent,” I thought. “He liked the Conservation Club. He certainly enjoyed the creek. He was so quiet, he had few friends.”
But that made me said, so I scratched it out. It pained me that he had reached out to me that day at the church. I took little comfort in the idea that I was the last friend he made.
I could only be happy when I thought of him in Heaven.
Years later, when I read C.S. Lewis’s books, I could see my friend, Mark, paddling down a pristine Sugar Creek. Not one filled with logs and other snags, not one that was too shallow in spots, but a Sugar Creek in heaven that was just right. The weather would always be perfect, too.
C.S. Lewis seemed to think heaven was filled with the best of this world. The thought made me happy, so I grabbed on to it with both hands and held on the rest of my life.
The next day, I awoke to gray, threatening skies.