He sat in the back, way in the back, left side. Didn’t say much, but that he wasn’t dumb was somehow clear. He had a problem with getting work in on time—that I remember, the kind of student you’ve got to bug to stay tuned. But then, so was I.
I got roped into sponsoring the soccer club that year, my first year of college teaching. I knew nothing about soccer except that it was a game with astonishingly little scoring. It seemed an exercise in futility at times, but I’d coached before and I enjoyed the camaraderie.
This tall kid was one of them, quite talented too, a freshman who played a ton that year, even though he was one of the new kids on the block.
I don’t think I had him as a student after that, but some kids you don’t lose sight of—probably because they don’t lose sight of you. This one I remembered, too.
He became a teacher, and an artist with exceptional talent. When I’d visit the place he and his wife lived, I’d run into him, a guy with a pony tail shaped like an artist's brush halfway down his back. He’d put on weight, enough to square him up. Even in a crowded room, you didn’t look past him.
And he did well as an artist, well enough to be noticed, well enough to have his work purchased. That’s one, above—a woman somewhere in the middle of a tragedy at Chernobyl--that one is his.
Last weekend I saw him and couldn’t help but notice the half-dollar-sized spaces in that thick head of hair. He has brain cancer.
Twice, he and his singing group sang for big crowds. It was obvious he was having trouble holding up his share of the bass line. At times, he was behind a step or two, but he stood there—sometimes sat—with his gang. Just seeing him up there was, to me and others, more than enough to make people wipe their eyes. Me too.
Twice, I saw his wife reach for hers, even though she tried to fight the tears. That's the picture I'm left with, his wife alone in a chair or pew, losing a battle with him and her tears.
I gave two speeches during that convention, speeches that had me scared spitless for more than a week because I wanted them to go well. What I hadn’t imagined is that the story of the weekend was a tall, skinny kid I had in class almost 35 years before, a 50-year-old man in the prime of creative life, a pony-tailed painter, a husband and a father being taken slowly, painfully, from those he loves because nothing less than evil eats away at those acute perceptions that made him an artist he'd become.
I wish I could write a thoughtful homily I could put in an inside pocket, close to my heart, something that would stanch the bleeding from my own soul.
Later today I'll face another class full of students. I’d like to tell them, if I could, that, quite honestly, nobody knows what life holds for them. I’d like to say a lot of things, but I won’t. Maybe one of those kids will be an artist too—who knows?
We’ll go on. We’ll read a story about a father’s loves for his daughter, a father who talks to God. That’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll go on. As we always do.
It’s all around us, really. There's never an end to funerals. But we go on. Grab a Kleenex maybe, howl some.
The human story—our need for love, God’s love—just keeps playing, doesn't it? Just keeps running.
Not unlike soccer, a game—or so it seems to me this morning—with not much scoring.
Or that crumpled picture of Christ just beyond the woman's hand in his painting. See that? It's what we've got, all we've got really.
But I don't want to be without it--and neither did he.
*From the files, November, 2008