Maybe death really does come in threes.
Our story begins back in Athens, GA, in 1977, and not when Harry met Sally, but when the Big Bison met Tracy, while both were attending the University of Georgia. Tracy, our dear faithful friend through the years, who ended up being the best man at our wedding. Tracy, who many long years ago needed a guitar player for his Christian rock band, and who asked the Big Bison to fill the position. It was while playing in this band that the BB became friends with Ron, the drummer, and by extension, he became close to Ron's parents, Bernie and Bev. Bernie and Bev came to every show Ron ever did, at least everyone that they possibly could. They loved their child. They loved their children. And they loved their Lord. And that is pretty much the theme song of their life.
So, many miles away from the young Big Bison's own home, the Lord mercifully put my homeless BB into a brand new home, because that's just the kind of thing the Lord likes to do for His children. My dear (at that time future) husband needed a place to live, and Ron the drummer's parents invited the Big Bison to move in. In Psalm 68:5 David describes God as a father to the fatherless, and then he goes on to say in the next verse that God sets the lonely in families. In I Samuel 2:8, Hannah says that God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap and seats them with princes, Now Bev explained to me once that their last name had something to do with royalty, so I can only say that in my sweet BB's life, these scriptures must have been literally fulfilled, because God picked him up and set him right into the middle of a loving Christian family with (at least according to Bev) royal connections. And if our riches are measured in the amount of love we possess, then my Bison landed in the lap of luxury. Not only did Bernie and Bev repeatedly tell me that the BB was their adopted son, their kids all added with a wry smile that he was, indeed, the FAVORITE son, who could do no wrong. (But, really, they're NOT bitter! Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)
I can only wish the same for my own children some day, if they are ever far from home, and for your children as well: while they are far from you, may some wonderful soul who loves Jesus reach out to MY child, and to YOUR child in love, and take them in, the way Bernie and Bev adopted the Big Bison, so many years ago. And may I be open to do the same for someone else's child! Who knows the comfort we might give - the ripples that spread out and affect areas of our world that we may never know of. That cup of cold water given in Jesus' Name - who knows where the refreshed traveler may be able to go carrying the Good News?
Anyway, all that happened over 30 years ago, and time has marched on. The Big Bison left Athens to pursue his dream of making music and moved to Nashville. We met, and made a lot of history together ourselves. But every few years, like a GOOD penny, Bernie and Bev would pop up, usually traveling through Nashville on their way to visit family up north. And they'd call us from the Motel 6, telling us they were in town, and off we'd go to meet up with them. We were treated to detailed updates on family news, and pictures. Oh, the pictures of the grandchildren! And the loving accounts of all their accomplishments. And the struggles as well. Bev's eyes and Bernie's eyes would fill with tears sometimes as they shared the stories of their children. Once they came to our house to visit, and I can still see Bev, in her late 70's, but snuggled up next to Bernie on the couch, her arm in his, bragging on Bernie's latest accomplishment. Bernie was always planting something, or painting something, or building something. He was a true Renaissance man, happiest creating stuff.
And Bev? Well, Bev's love of music came shining through her children. She managed to pass that love of music to each of her kids. And I think the show biz gene runs strong in the whole family, judging from the performances delivered by each of her 70-something year old sisters and their husbands. The memorial service and the music that followed was a near variety show, and Bev would have been so proud her buttons would have burst, at seeing all her kids and her sisters and their husbands performing. It's a shame she missed the party, but I think the celebration she is attending in heaven is actually probably a lot better, with music that is positively Divine.
As the years went by, the aging process took its terrible toll, and Bernie and Bev's trips through Nashville finally ceased. They moved into an assisted living situation as Bev began to lose touch with reality. The last time we visited them, Bev still knew us, which was gratifying, but that was several years ago. And toward the end, Bernie began to lose touch with reality more and more, himself. And so their biological children, Jack and Ron and Susan were left to carry out the painful process of the long goodbye, caring for their parents when their parents could no longer care for themselves.
Which brings us to February of this year. One of the nurses who cared for Bernie towards the end stood up at the memorial service and told the story of Bernie, just a couple of weeks before his death, reaching out at lunchtime to take the hand of the woman who no longer knew him, and saying to her ever so tenderly, ever so earnestly, "I love you, Beverly". That's the kind of love that blows me away. The kind of love that asks nothing for itself, that expects none of its own needs to be met. It just loves, for the sake of love. And two weeks later on Friday, February 13th, at 2:00 in the morning, Bernie passed on to be full time with the Lord. A last gift of love for his family? His final illness brought reconciliation between estranged family members, who drew together to honor the memory of the man who had poured out his life in love for them.
And exactly one month after that, on Friday, March 13th, at 2:00 in the morning, Bev, surrounded by her two sons and their wives, who were singing her on her way, took her leave as well. Her son Jack told us that they thought she had stopped breathing, and so they stopped singing. But then she opened her eyes, and looked at each one of them. So they began the hymn again, and she began gently moaning, on pitch. She went out singing, surrounded by her loving family. I have chills again just telling the story, because I can't think of a better way to go.
So the Big Bison and the kids and I arrived for the private family time of spreading Bev's ashes. Because the way this family learned to love from Bernie and Bev wasn't just with kind words. They show their love in action, with their lives. And so we were treated as family, which I guess is the way Bernie and Bev would have wanted it. And we each took a turn sprinkling some of Bev's ashes around the dogwood trees that were planted on either side of a bench out in the field near Jack's house. And as we sprinkled the ashes, we each shared a favorite memory of Bev. And we toasted her with orange juice, because it was Bev's firm belief that "orange juice makes you smile". And we told stories, and cried a few tears, but mostly we rejoiced that she has relocated to be with her dear Lord Jesus, and her loving husband Bernie, both of whom she loved and served faithfully all her life.
I have to tell you about my two favorite moments of the memorial service that was held at the funeral home for Bev. The first was when a spry old 80 something year old professional musician named Tom, who just happened to be Bev's brother in law, sat down before the service began, and at the request of the family, played "Georgia On My Mind". They invented the phrase "tickling the ivories" to describe the way Tom plays piano, I am firmly convinced. Oh, my goodness! That bald, wrinkly handed, age spotted old feller positively made that piano croon and sway. I think a piano in a funeral home rarely has had such an opportunity to strut its stuff and have such a nice time, being coaxed along by a master.
My other favorite moment was when Bev's grandson began to read from
I Cor. 13 and reworded it this way: "Grandma is patient, Grandma is kind, Grandma does not envy...". Well, it was break out the hankies time for me. I can't imagine a more beautiful tribute to pay to a human being than that scripture right there, with the person's name inserted in the place of "love". I guess it's because I know that I fall so very short of living out those qualities of love that are described in that chapter. It's what I WISH I did. But I cannot say that it is HOW I live. What a huge, huge honor Bev's grandson paid to her, but you know, he would never have said it were it not true. They weren't empty words.
So, between losing Bernie, and then my friend Big Nance's father Joe (whom I mentioned in my last blog entry), and then losing Bev, I've had just about enough of thinking about the finiteness of the life we know on this planet, and the terrible toll of sickness and aging on the body.
So, instead, I think I'll focus on living in such a way that my life brings honor to the Name of Jesus. I think I'll reach out to a lonely somebody who needs some encouragement. I think I'll try to be the kind of Mom who acts wisely on behalf of her children: giving them both firmness and mercy. I think I'll try to live up to the beautiful examples of Joe, and Bernie, and Bev. And thank the Lord for ETERNAL life - that belonging to Him means that this is NOT the end.
You've heard the verse from I Corinthians 15:55 that asks, "Where, O death, is your victory?" Paul says that when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying "Death has been swallowed up in Victory" will be true. I think in Bev's case, Victory washed death down with a big gulp of orange juice. And then smiled.
Because Bev's home!