Any person can be nice to your face, but it takes a real friend to be nice behind your back. – UnknownSome people make your laugh a little louder, your smile a little brighter, and your life a little better. – Unknown
A dear friend of mine died today. That may not seem like anything so unusual to you, but I spent a great deal of my life holding people at arms-length. I’d been hurt enough. I was tired of being hurt. I wanted nothing more to do with pain. It’s not that I didn’t have friends, I just kept a close eye on them.
The result of that, unfortunately, was that I set myself up for more pain and more hurt. Here’s how it worked. I needed people around me in order to feel safe. But, I didn’t feel safe being around people – they might hurt me. It was a vicious cycle that threatened to repeat itself endlessly until the day I finally died. That, thankfully, has changed.
When I discovered myself back in church a few years ago, I began to go to a Sunday School class. I’d never been in an adult Sunday School class and had no idea what to expect. And, my fear of men was still almost as great as ever, though I’d been working on that. Now I was in a room filled with people who found me interesting – an oddity, for certain. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that most of them had been in church all their lives – uninterrupted. And there I sat, fifty-six years old and clueless. These people seems genuinely interested in me, in what I had to say. I found them fascinating, also. I knew my mother had been in church all her life, but that was somehow different. No, here were a bunch of people somewhere around my age, give or take twenty or thirty years, who were in church not because their parents told them they had to go. They didn’t show up because it was expected of them. They seemed happy about being there! I was stunned.
All that to say I met some wonderful people in that classroom. One of them was probably the gentlest men I’ve ever known in my life. I don’t actually know what it was about Jim that made me instantly comfortable with him, but that was his effect on me. I loved talking to Jim. He was always interested in how things were going for me. He was ready to chuckle at my bad jokes. He was ready to tell me about his life. He could put his arms around me without being the least bit self-conscious about it. I wish now I’d asked him to teach me how to do that. Then again, perhaps he did. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not very good at it yet.
Jim was a little older than me. Okay, maybe twenty years or so, but that’s not so much by the time you’re pushing sixty yourself. Age didn’t seem to matter at all. We were just two friends sitting and having a conversation.
I saw Jim a few weeks ago when I drove to Waco for a memorial service for another friend, Jan Williams. Jim had been battling cancer and wasn’t recovering terribly well from the treatment. He was there in a wheelchair in order to preserve his strength. He was determined to be at Jan’s service, as was I. The memorial service was to be in the afternoon after the worship service. When I saw Jim, I went over to say hello. Jim reached up to hug me and just held on to me for the longest time. He kept saying, “Oh, Ben, Ben,” and had the biggest smile on his face. I got the chance to visit with Jim more than once that day. He left after church with his wife, Lori, for a rest, then returned later in the afternoon for the memorial service. We visited more at the reception after until I felt I had to get on the road back to Garland.
I had no way of knowing this would be the last time I’d get to see Jim. I knew he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t want to think about that. It’s the part about community I hate the very most.
Shortly after meeting Jim, I thought to myself, “What a dear man. How sad I’ve arrived near the end of his life.” Thankfully, my next thought was, “No, thank God I made it here in time to get to know Jim.” My whole life had changed. It’s not that I didn’t know it would hurt to lose these people, it’s just that it was so much more important to me to have known them. What I would have missed would have been immeasurable and I finally knew that was the most important thing.
So, because I’d had to move 100 miles away from Jim and other friends, I knew it was possible I’d not see him again. I was so glad to have been able to be there to visit with him. I think of Jim and I smile. I can’t seem to help it.
It’s taken a very long time but I’ve finally learned that people don’t abandon me when they die. In fact, it’s not about me at all. On the other hand, I also know that my tears are about me. It hurts to know I’ll not see Jim again in this lifetime, won’t have another conversation. But I do know I’ll smile again when I think of Jim because, well, I just won’t be able to help myself.
My friend, Jim Hooper, died today – December 3, 2011. Jim will live on, however, in the memories of the many people who love him. He was part of my welcome home “party” when I got back to church. I plan to be part of his sending ceremony in that same church.
Make certain you let the people you love know that you love them. You never know if the next time you see them may also be the last.
I miss you already very much, Jim. Thank you and Godspeed.