Footsteps Down the Aisle

One of the most difficult parts of the middle years is losing your personal saints—those contemporaries of your parents to whom you always looked up. This week I, and our church, lost three. C.S. Lewis wrote that, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.” Lewis could have been writing about the distinctive personalities of Lem, Mary Ann, and Rufus.

As my most memorable Sunday school teacher, Lem brought the Bible and God to life for me in a way nothing else had. I remember having so many questions for him, and I recall that one day he told me I was wearing him out. (As I’ve said before, I was an exhausting child). He was a larger than life part of my life for almost 50 years. Although not a daily presence—in fact I had not seen him in many, many months—the fact that he was there, the fact that he called me “gal” when he saw me, made my world feel a little safer. When I became engaged to my husband, I remember Lem interrogating me about Gabe. When he discovered they were both Vanderbilt engineers, he said he’d give his blessing. “But I’ll be watching, gal!” he laughed. I counted on that.

I only met Mary Ann within the last 10 years but in many ways she was a mother figure to me at a time in my life when I needed it. She had a calm, listening presence that told me I could say anything to her and she would understand. I recall venting to her, joking with her, and she was an important presence at my daughter’s wedding and my parents’ funerals. Mary Ann exuded grace and elegance and went about her life quietly doing what needed to be done for other people—all while she fought cancer for many years. Without ever speaking the words, she let me know that the world is good and that she was here.

Rufus was the very definition of cantankerous, and I looked forward to seeing him every week in church if for no other reason than to tease him. He was a member of the “lunch bunch,” a group of old men who met for lunch once a week. My dad was in that group and when he was no longer able to drive, Rufus picked him up faithfully each week so Dad could continue in the fellowship. I imagine Rufus would grumble if I ever told him he was a good man, or perhaps tap my backside with his cane, but that wry wit and humility are precisely what made him good.

In the span of fewer than 7 days, the world lost three touchpoints for me and the sunlight dimmed a bit. Although no one can dispute the fact that they lived long, full lives (passing on at 96, 86 and 88 respectively), I wasn’t ready. Are we ever prepared to lose people who, albeit not parts of your daily life, help anchor your world? Surely part of the pain of losing my parents’ friends and contemporaries is that it feels a little like losing Mom and Dad all over again. Their generation moors me to my childhood while their presence gives me confidence that I can conquer whatever comes my way. Without those elders, I’m gradually moving into the phase where I will be the oldest in the room. Yet I lack their grace, their wisdom. I’m not ready.

I don’t mean for this post to be morose, but from sadness and introspection comes movement. I do take comfort in knowing that I was formed by personal saints like these and many more—that, like the delicate petals of a rosebud, we are the compilation of layer upon layer of people who have touched our lives in ways large and small. “When the roll is called up yonder,” the human interactions, the selfless acts, our imperfect humanness are what will make us worthy of being mourned and missed.

Each year, around our anniversary, I watch the grainy video of our wedding, and I’m reminded of the line from “The Sixth Sense”: ‘I see dead people.’ The 1989 video was shot on a tripod outside the doors between the sanctuary and the narthex. Although the video quality is poor, I can identify by stature and gait the people who attended, making their way down the long aisle. So many of them have passed on now, but I take great comfort in remembering that they were there, that their footsteps were gentle blessings paving my way.

The loss of my three personal saints this week narrowed my world a bit, but I take solace in the words of the poet Anne Sexton: “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.” One foot in front of the other. In search of exuberance: That’s what my saints wanted me to know, wanted me to do. I’ll try to follow their lead.

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