While I grudgingly made my cuts, my dad went to get another cup of coffee. When he got back, he looked approvingly at my shrinking pile.
He sat down, took a sip, and said:
“Looks like you’re ready to start writing. Just remember to start with the 500-pound gorilla in the room.”
My dad said this to me a lot. He meant that I have to begin by stating the obvious. I have to take what everyone knows is there but nobody mentions, and I have to look at it, and I have to make peace with it, and then I have to say it.
The difference between good writers and great writers is that the great writers start with the obvious. They start with the 500-pound gorilla.
And the 500-pound gorilla in this room is the Lyme disease. This serious-strange disease that put stress and strain on all my dad’s most cherished relationships, including those in his own family and in his church family. This either-or disease that struck down the Genius of the And.
Already, over the past week, I’ve heard many of you talking all around the Lyme disease. Trying to ignore it. But the 500-pound Gorilla is still here. It’s here now.
In this room, today, there is the grief, yes. The grief and loss I knew would be here. But there is something else, too – an almost palpable feeling of regret. The overwhelming oppression of waste. I think you feel it too, so I have to say something about it – I have to acknowledge it.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Sickness left untreated, or treated improperly, always leads to waste. To wasting away. My dad’s sickness was, too often, misdiagnosed, mistreated, and simply missed. And we all have to do better. As a group, we are too turned off by deformity and decay, too afraid of weakness, too ready to ignore our own and others’ wasting, too reluctant to claim the fellowship we should have in suffering, too quick to find fault, too slow to show pity.
One of the reasons I wrote this eulogy last night is because I procrastinate. But the other reason is that, thinking of who would be here today – thinking about stepping back in this church after my prolonged absence – I was at a loss for what to say. For how to say it. And a part of me, a big part of me, wanted to get up to this podium and scream profanities at the sky and sit back down. I may still do that if I find I can’t get through.
But the other part of me, the better part of me, knows that I’m not here for myself. And I’m not here to make a point. I’m here because I love my dad. I’m here to make sure that the people he loved, the people who love him, understand him – fully, wholly, and generously.
To begin to understand my dad, you’d have to know two things. Two things he taught all his kids early and often.
First, he taught us to beware of false dichotomies. Of treating our problems like either-or scenarios when we don’t have to. Of course, there are some true dichotomies, but not as many as we might think. One true dichotomy is the separation between the living and the not living. That, as I understood perfectly last Sunday night, is a profound and true dichotomy.
There is a tendency, though, when someone dies, to deify that person. To assume he was perfect. Right about everything. That you were wrong. And to let the regret settle in. My dad would be the first to tell you that you’re falling into the false dichotomy trap. In his case, as in most others, there is no either-or. Over the last 10 to 15 years, my dad tried to tell the story of his sickness – but it wasn’t all the sickness. Sometimes he was sick, sometimes he was selfish, sometimes graceful, sometimes sinful, sometimes weak, sometimes strong. But he needed kindness and love at every point, in every state and between states. Because love, also, is never an either-or proposition.
Second, and more importantly, he taught us grace. My dad taught grace differently than I’ve learned it elsewhere. To him, grace was operational and imminent, not transcendent. That is, grace is only grace if you use it, if you give it away, if you keep it current. And the trick of grace is that it doesn’t stay grace forever. Not even God’s grace stays grace forever. At some point, it becomes equality, becomes level. Grace becomes a leveling. The giver stoops. Or the receiver is lifted up. Grace isn’t something you dispense from up high so that you can remain on top. That is power, or guilt, or something else – but not grace. Grace operates from the ground up. Grace operates out of humility. We have to be able, be willing, to give grace even in the midst of failure, sorrow, and pain, or it’s not grace.
In his last act on earth, at his darkest point, Jesus gave grace – and he gave this grace by making himself our equal, by lowering himself. He asked God to forgive us. He told the thief next to him: “You and me. Us. We’ll be together.” And, sometime in the future, he’ll practice grace again by lifting us up. Us. Equal with God.
This is the type of grace my dad taught and practiced. Many, many times when I came home from school or work, I caught my dad taking a quick nap on the couch. He always tried to explain his fatigue away: “Emily…I'm only lying here for a minute...I'm feeling fine, just had an early morning...I’m making progress…This is only a minor setback, a small bump on the road to recovery…The general trend is up."
He was dispensing grace. In the midst of his disease, his greatest concern was how it affected me. How his weakness was affecting other people.
And he would want me to dispense grace now. He would want me to give grace, even (especially) from my lowest place. He would want me to tell you . . . it’s ok that you didn’t always understand him, that you didn’t always understand the illness. He would want me to acknowledge our equality – I lived with it, we lived with it, and we didn’t always understand it. We got it wrong most days. He would want me to tell you that he’s only lying here for a minute, that the general trend is up. He would want me thank you for taking care of us over the past week, to thank you for loving us, and to thank you for loving him every way you knew how.