I am pacing around the church building on a Wednesday afternoon. Any other day, I would be at the tree farm. But today I am here for a funeral. I have been asked by the family to say a few words in memory of their mother. And you would think I would be comfortable with that. Yet, my palms are sweating, and my mind is in a fog.
No matter how many times I have stood in front of some small crowd, this is never completely easy. I have long since been over the fear of public speaking. I no longer need to imagine the audience in their underwear in order to loosen up my own sense of self-conscious uneasiness. An old but effective trick from speech class.
Oddly, I still fear the words that will come out of my mouth. I have been over them a thousand times. I have scratched out lines and replaced them with better ones. My syntax stinks. My use of the English language is always suspect. I have misplaced modifiers stumbling all over each other. My dialect is still countryfied, no matter how much I try to polish up my pronunciations.
I’m not whining. I just want this to be right. I want to do right by this lady whom we have come to honor and remember. She has been a dear friend to my family. I am honored to be a part of this day. But in this moment, my pacing reminds me of walking the hospital corridor before my first child was born.
My buddy, Shawn, is at the piano. The old hymns are floating around the room as he tickles the keys. I am taken back to an old country church with a slanted floor and wooden pews. Miss Peggy at the piano. The words of ‘In the Garden’ etched permanently in my memory.
It seems, somehow, that I have been tapped by fate. This is not my first funeral. I have assisted on a number of occasions on behalf of cousins and friends. I’m not sure how I ended up with this role, but each time it stirs in me a great conflict.
The parting words spoken over a soul in death requires me to say all the things that those looking back at me have wanted to say but never found the means to say them. In a few paragraphs, I am to speak for those who feel and think and weep and laugh, but who cannot themselves find the right words to unearth the treasures buried within their own hearts. Carving out the sentiments and memories from decades of a hard but faithful life.
This is why my palms are sweating. The weight of words that have the power to lift us beyond our grief, if only for a few moments. A few will find a nod of recognition. Some will be painfully inadequate. Heard but easily forgotten. Spoken but never reaching their mark.
I have known Mary Henson for over 20 years now. I first met her right here in this very room. She was 70 already, back then. Today she is just past her 90th birthday. A widow lady who embraced her church as family. Her grown children with their lives scattered in other distant places. I have always known that she is a magnificent woman.
An Oklahoma girl, Mary was born in 1931 when the dust blew in like a wool blanket across the plain. When jobs were scarce, and food was hard to come by. Her father jumped ship when she was only five years old. “He was under an insufferable strain and just couldn’t tolerate it any longer. He lasted longer than a lot of men back then.” Her words. Not mine.
She learned strength and faith in God from her mother, who labored as a single mom to six kids all on her own. And when she married a soldier in 1950, and he went off to serve his country, she carried those lessons with her from one military post to another. Raising four kids. Reading Bible stories to them at bedtime. Mary was the essence of what it means to be full of grace.
You should read the life story that she wrote. Her son, Jack, gave it to me a few days ago. Nine pages. Single spaced. The opening line is like a start to a cheap drugstore novel. Enter the voice of Earl Ray Jones. “It was a dark and dreary winter evening on a farm in Major County Oklahoma, January 11, 1931 . . .” A real page-turner from the get-go.
All four of her children are here today. They all agree, “She got us through some pretty lean times, and never complained. Not once. Our faith in God is what it is today because of her.”
The chairs are beginning to fill. The Sanctuary is alive with the quiet whispers of conversation. A granddaughter and her 8-year-old daughter take the stage with a couple of mics in hand. The younger one takes the lead.
“When peace live a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll.”
I think the sea just billowed right into my lap because my hands won’t stop leaking water. A few drops have splashed over my eyes. The faith they sing about began in their lives with the woman in the casket, which means that her voice lives on in the words they sing.
“It is well with my soul.”
The time has come. I stand to say the words. We laugh a little bit. We ponder the mysteries of a life well lived. There is unspeakable comfort and grace in this room today.
The drive to the cemetery is led by blue lights playing leapfrog from one intersection to the next. A semi-truck is pulled off on the shoulder of the road, waiting in somber respect for the family to pass by. Mary would have said that none of this is necessary. We all know it is not only necessary but well deserved.
The casket is lifted from the hearst. The pall bearers ease it down under the tent. Tissues are handed around among the women who take their seats. Deep down, I know they are fine, but the love flows from their eyes anyway.
“Who shall separate us . . .” is read from the Book. Shawn starts up a verse of a familiar hymn. The acapello voices remind us of “what a day of rejoicing that will be.” No more days like this one. No more sorrow. No more worry and no more pain. This is the faith of a thousand generations sung by a handful of simple people on a hot day in June.
Back at the church there is a truck load of food prepared and set out by holy women who know how to serve up laughter and conversation for the weary. The fried chicken and sweat tea goes straight to the heart before it goes to the stomach. One young man asks for the recipe for the Mac & Cheese my wife brought. His wife says he doesn’t need it.
No one wants to leave. All is well. Really well with my soul.
And the best part? My palms have finally stopped sweating.