Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching Myself in a Classic Lie, Part 1

Note: The quotes contained in this post are not verbatim, but accurate enough to convey what the speaker was attempting to say.

A very unscientific survey seems to confirm that 2009 has been a year of loss for a lot of people. We’ve had a rash of very high-profile celebrity deaths, and the pattern seems to be present for many closer to home, myself included.

In addition to my brother-in-law, who died about six and a half months ago, there have been numerous passings at the Unitarian Universalist church I attend. Shortly after I joined, the minister said to a group of us, “These next few years are bound to be tough ones for this congregation – many of our most active members are also our oldest, and I anticipate conducting a continual series of memorial services.” That prediction took a couple of years to come true, but now it has. We’ve lost close to half a dozen this year. It’s stressful for everyone.

One member whose death has especially touched me was Bill, who would have been 81 today. Bill’s passion was membership, though during his many years, he was a willing participant in nearly every aspect of church life. Bill was invariably the first person a visitor would meet, as was the case with me. Even though it was summer and the minister wasn’t there, Bill was, in his requisite tweed blazer with patches on the elbows. In a place where many attendees arrive in shorts, flip-flops, and kilts, piercings and tattoos blaring forth, Bill was always impeccably groomed. In spite of his relatively small stature, his bearing was one of authority and dignity. Bill knew everything there was to know about making a good first impression.

“What did you think of it?” he asked as I stood in the fellowship area with my coffee cup that first time. When I replied with my favorable views, he smiled and said, “Well, just keep in mind that it’s going to be a little bit different every time you come here. You won’t be bored.”
That was a line I went on to repeat to every visitor I have encountered since. Bill’s friendliness was one of the major factors in my joining the congregation shortly after that first visit. A great many of the newer members can say exactly the same thing: They learned how to greet visitors by following Bill’s example.

Beneath that genial exterior was a tough guy. The toughness sprang from something other than just his many years in the military. It had to do with an inner certainty and serenity. Just as a theistically religious person will often exude that calm acceptance that no argument can displace, Bill, as an ardent rationalist, demonstrated similar qualities. There may have been a time that he went toe-to-toe with a fundamentalist, but I never saw it. With Bill, it was more a matter of “I'm confident in my beliefs and they are not threatened by yours. I’m interested in hearing your view. Go grab some coffee and we’ll talk.”

My other best memory of Bill was at the discussion forum our church holds before Sunday services. There are three qualifications for forum participation: First you have to be a morning person, because if you’re not, you will suffer when the moderator calls out your name and asks if you have any thoughts you’d like to share on the topic of the day. Second, you have to be thick-skinned enough to deal with some very strong opinions flying through the air, promulgated by similarly strong personalities. And third, you have to accept that while our minister and numerous members advocate tolerance for the more spiritual side of UU, the classically humanist view holds sway here in the basement and little or nothing is likely ever to dislodge it.

The forum was Bill’s other mainstay. He and his wife were there every Sunday.

A year or so ago, Bill’s health started along the path to failure that culminated in his death this past spring. We heard of a hospital stay, but that kept him away from church for two weeks at the most. When he returned, he had an oxygen tank and a breathing tube, but above the clear plastic, his frank and curious eyes returned your gaze and you knew Bill was still very much in the game. So it was that one Sunday, the forum topic was the variety of religious approaches to life’s touchpoints. Bill was eager to talk about his most recent hospital stay, because during that period, he had stood on the fine edge of death. His vital signs had slipped, with “codes” of various colors being signaled to medical staff, and his wife being asked to fill out forms that would give the hospital directions on how to proceed if need be.

Bill said “I can tell you, the evidence of my nearness to death was there in black and white – I read the medical summaries, and it was close. Very close. And I am very confident in relating to you all, that I saw no bright lights, heard no soothing music, saw no departed figures from my past reaching their arms in greeting. I saw nothing. My only awareness, in my intermittent moments of wakefulness, was that I was in the hospital. There was pain, there was certainly a wish on my part that I could just fall into a deep sleep, or even death to evade the worst of it. But when I came back, I was back. I was ready to pick up and keep going, but I had no fear or anticipation of anything. It just was what it was.”

And that suited Bill just fine. Another person may have felt great distress that all the “documented evidence” of other-worldly markers were absent. Bill felt affirmed and vindicated, and I have no doubt that when the illness came back and took him in June, he was simply having a repeat of the experience he described to us.

So, fast-forward to October 29, and Facebook reminds me that today would have been Bill’s birthday. His page is still open; several people have left memorial tributes over the months, and his wife checks in now and then to let us know she appreciates us.

I wanted to write something on his wall, and what ended up there was, “He paints the sky with stars.”

Yep, that was me, the UU skeptic/humanist/freethinker, with my offering of spiritual drivel in memory of one who would, under similar circumstances, have smiled politely and said thank you, but rolled his eyes in good-natured exasperation at such a vapid sentiment.

So, now that the words are on there for all to see, probably not likely to be removed by his wife, regardless of what she thinks of them, I ask myself:

What brought that on?

I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this and would love to hear comments. The next post attempts to answer that question.


smijer said...

Bill was one of a kind. If I die living half the life he lived, I will have done enough.

Memorializing a person is way more important for those still living - including the one doing the memorializing - than for the person who is gone. You expressed your feelings about him they way you felt them. That's not vapid. Even if I, like him, would feel you were being more poetic than nature strictly allows for. You have nothing to feel ashamed or sorry for.

Volly said...

My personal experience has shown that there's an extremely fine line between inconsistency and hypocrisy, and I'd rather be called out on it by myself than by someone else. :) Thanks!

Al Penwasser said...
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