Friday evening inside a dusty woodshop. Sawdust on the floor. The sound of a table saw. The work here tonight is a holy offering undertaken at the request of my neighbors across the creek.
On Friday morning I saw I had missed a call from Wayne’s daughter. She had traveled home with her husband from Knoxville. Deb and the three girls were busy making decisions about the funeral. Son-in-laws were busy making sure the women folk were free to talk by wrangling the kids and cleaning the kitchen. Smart men, those sons-in-law.
Along with the missed call, I also got a text from my buddy John Willis. “Urgent,” it said. “Call me now.”
The combination of those two messages made me swallow hard. Wayne had passed away in the early morning hours on Thursday. My stomach turned over wondering what might be up now.
“Hey, John. What’s up?”
“Dude. Where are you? Racheal has been trying to get ahold of you.”
“Covered up at work right now. What’s going on?”
“She couldn’t get ahold of you, so she called me.”
“John, what the heck is so urgent? Your text said urgent.”
When he finally told me, I had to take a deep breath. “I’ll call her right now. We’re gonna do this, whatever it takes. I’ll call you back after I talk to her.”
You have to understand that Wayne lived outside the box long before “outside the box” was a thing. If he wanted a picture of a man standing in a field, he painted one. If he needed a stained-glass window for his house, he built it. If he wanted to bake pizza out-of-doors, he made his own brick oven.
Rachel was hesitant when she spoke. “I have a big ask of you. My sisters and I were talking with Mom, and we’d like to ask if you would build the coffin for my dad. He always talked about making his own but never got around to doing that. I know this is asking a lot on short notice and we understand if you don’t think you could do it, but we really ….”
“Racheal. Stop. Consider it done. How much time do I have?”
“The funeral home will need it by Sunday morning. We have a private family viewing at 10 that morning.”
First of all. I’m an okay woodworker. I’m not a master craftsman. But, I’m thinking, it’s a box. We can do this.
Second of all, I realize I’ve committed to something that is bigger than whatever skills I may or may not have and I am absolutely pumped to do this. But it’s gonna be a long night.
I called John. I let my son know. I left work early and went to the hardware store to get a few things. John said that he’d meet me at my shop as soon as he could get away.
Around 1998, First Baptist in Warm Springs was remodeling their basement classrooms. The walls were covered in yellow pine tongue and groove panels. The kind that always make me thing of my Uncle Robert’s living room. A hardened varnish finish that had yellowed with age since the panels were put up in the 50s. The church was just going to throw all that wood away.
When Wayne found out, he called me. “Whatever you had planned to do the next two weeks in your time off, I’ve got something else in mind.”
Once Wayne got something on his brain, there was no turning aside. Weeknights and Saturdays we pried at each panel and pulled nails by the millions. We carried boards by the armful up the steps and out into the parking lot.
We were going to haul them home once we got everything cleared out of the basement. We almost lost them. A well-meaning church member cleaned up our pile and took it home to burn. Panic ensued but we caught him before he struck the match.
We ended up with close to 150 boards 10 foot each. Some splits. Some rotten ends. But all in all, some really beautiful pine for future shop projects.
By the time John got here, I had a basic frame put together.
“What are we going to use to build this thing?” he asked.
“Well, I have this pile of wood over in the corner there.” And I told John the story. We did a little figuring and turned out I had enough to make a casket. We’d use the wood that had some of Wayne’s blood and sweat on it.
Dark settled in as the evening went on. Marshall went to town to pick up some finishing supplies. John and I measured and cut and nailed and sanded. The sounds of the router whirring and the nail gun pounding floated out the big roll-up door and into the dark woods around the shop.
On Saturday morning, Racheal and Joanna came over to the shop. The tools went silent when they walked through the open door. As soon as they saw “the box” there were tears and hugs over the solemn work around us.
The main box was nearly complete. I told them about the wood their dad and I had rescued those many years ago and how fitting it was to use it now for his final rest. The English Chestnut stain made the grain stand out and I was thinking that it might have been a God-thing that I had kept this wood for just this day.
“It was amazing last night.” The girls both spoke in almost reverent tones. “We were sitting out on the back deck after supper. We could see the lights from your shop through the trees. The sounds of the table saw and the nail gun and the sanders came to us through the woods just like our dad was with us. Even now the smell of sawdust is just perfect.”
More tears. I think I had sawdust in my eyes or something.
When they left, John and Marshall and I just stood still for a moment trying to breath and take it all in.
I’ve built a lot of things over the years. Gifts for other people. Some for family. Bookcases. Tables. Nick-Knacks of all kinds. But never anything like this. I had never had chills run down my spine before like I did listening to these young women talk about what it meant to them for us to honor their dad.
We knocked off after lunch so that we could clean up and go to the visitation which was down at the Fire Station in Hamilton. Wayne was a volunteer firefighter for decades. Fire Chief in Pine Mountain. Friends from all over came to pay their respects. The flag at the station at half-mast.
Back at my shop in the afternoon, John’s wife, Carla, came over to help with the upholstery for the inside. It needed a woman’s touch. We were done by around 5:00. On Sunday morning we loaded it in the back of John’s van and drove to Cox Funeral Home in the rain.
For the viewing, they draped a quilt over the foot end. Wayne’s mother had made it just for him years ago. I went back down to the funeral home before noon to secure the lid.
John and I and four of Wayne’s friends from the fire station had the privilege of being the pallbearers on Sunday afternoon. As we carried our friend from the church steps to the Hearst, I said a prayer. “Lord, please let these handles hold.”
Debbie told me after the funeral, “The casket was just perfect. It’s so beautiful. We just can’t thank you enough. Wayne would be so thrilled.”
“It was you,” I told her, “who gave us the gift of allowing us to make this for him. It was our honor.”
A simple man. A wooden box. The smell of sawdust. The sound of the last screw that locked the lid in place.
Wayne wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.