October 20, 2017

Another Look: Chris

Around the fire

The chaplain stood in front of Chris’s casket and nodded as mourners filed by. Glancing around, he saw a flower arrangement behind him with an interesting note on it: “From your friends at Green Lake Campground.” It was striking to him that owners of a campground would send such a lush bouquet and that it would be displayed so prominently, close to the casket.

Then again, as he was preparing for the service, the chaplain discovered that Chris and Peggy had spent twenty summers at Green Lake with their family and friends. It was as much their community as the neighborhood in which they lived. Most of the pictures pinned on the display boards around the funeral home showed them enjoying activities there. As their hospice chaplain, he hadn’t known them for long, and it was only after Chris’s death that he had learned about some of the activities that had shaped their lives over the years.

Just then, a man and woman passed by, extending their hands. “Hi, we’re Joe and Marie from Green Lake Campground. Thanks so much for the service today. Chris and Peggy have been good friends for many years.”

“I knew they enjoyed camping,” said the chaplain, “but I never knew how much until today. And you came! I’m sure it means the world to them.”

A few moments, later, another man shook his hand and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Carl. I own the Country Kitchen restaurant on Jefferson Street.”

The chaplain recognized the restaurant. “I’ve heard a  lot about you. It was important to Chris, even when it was difficult for him to get out, to try and go to lunch at your restaurant several times a week. You were like their extended family. They raved about how you treated them.”

The man wiped a tear from his eye and tried to say something, but the words didn’t come.

“Thanks for coming,” the chaplain said. “I know they appreciate it.”

He had visited at Chris and Peggy’s house only a couple of times. They lived on a small street in the heart of one of the city’s old neighborhoods. Cars parked on one side made it impossible for two-way traffic to flow. If you turned on to the street and saw a car coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop and back up to let them by. He always forgot which side of the street the cars were parked on, so on the few times he called on them, he had to drive down to the other end, turn around and come back and try and find a place near the house.

Their home was small, cluttered, and smelled of cigarette smoke. There were a couple of lawn chairs on a small front porch and a table between them with an ashtray and they tried to smoke out there whenever possible, but the winter and Chris’s limited mobility meant they indulged in the house more often these days.

Chris’s first wife had died of cancer as a young woman. Then he met Peggy, a divorcee, and they hit it off. He worked in one of the auto plants, she cleaned houses, and they blended their families together the best they could. Each only had one child, but both Chris and Peggy had siblings with whom they were close, and soon they were all spending time together each summer down at the campground. It was like an extended family reunion down there. An observer would have had a hard time distinguishing whose kids belonged to whom.

But Chris was obviously one of the leaders. All the children wanted to be around Uncle Chris. He would take them fishing, give them an endless supply of quarters for the game room, hand out candy all day long, join them in various games at the campsite, and make sure they got their marshmallows and S’mores at night. When the young ones were snug in their sleeping bags, he and the other adults would sit around the campfire, which he tended, until the wee hours, drinking beer and telling stories. It was his habit to bring a large piece of wood — almost a stump — and throw it on the fire the first night they arrived so it would keep burning for days and days. Like that never-ending campfire, Chris’s heart glowed with joy at the campground. He was in his element.

He thought about retiring early so they could spend more time there. But then the bad news came: Chris, who had been feeling strangely weak at times, learned he had a debilitating disease. He quit work, however, it wasn’t on his terms as he had hoped. The terrible disease would take his life, probably within a couple of years. He watched himself go quickly from being careful to walking with a cane to using a walker to being confined to a powered wheelchair. To his credit, Chris never stopped trying to stay active, never diminished in his desire to be around family and friends, and never lost his sense of humor.

Country KitchenThat’s when the restaurant became even more important as a place of fellowship and encouragement. He and Peggy would go every day for lunch, until that became too hard, and then it was maybe two or three times a week. One of their young nephews who was tall and strong moved into help them, and whenever Chris gave the word, he would load the power chair into the trunk of the car and accompany Uncle Chris and Aunt Peggy to the Country Kitchen.

The owner and staff learned to watch for them coming. Since they came around the same time each day, one of the servers would keep an eye out to spot their car pulling into the parking lot. She’d give the signal, and they’d get a table set up for them that Chris could get to easily. They’d put out Chris’s salad and drink and make sure the cracker basket had only the kinds in it that he liked. Someone would go hold the door for them, welcome them, and usher them to their table. Sometimes they stayed for two hours, catching up with the other regulars and the staff, laughing together through lots of stories and jokes and teasing conversations.

They went one last time the week Chris died.

After the funeral, the whole family, many neighbors, and friends from church were invited to the house for food and fellowship. It was an unusually warm day for the time of year, bright and dry. The gathering spilled out of the little house onto the small front porch and into the backyard. Carl had one of his servers deliver several boxes of food and drink from the Country Kitchen. If he had been there, Chris would have loved it and would have taken over as the life of the party. It seemed so funny not to hear his voice. The children didn’t know who to ask for candy.

Time stretched on toward evening. Peggy heard a commotion out in the backyard and went out to see what was happening. She saw a large circle of people huddled together, a plume of smoke rising from the midst of them. The circle parted when a few saw her coming and a friend invited her to sit down near the center. The next door neighbor had brought over his firepit and started a blazing fire. Someone produced some sticks and marshmallows. Another was handing out graham crackers and chocolate from a grocery bag. The younger kids squealed with delight and the older ones steadied their hands and showed them how to hold a stick over the fire. Some of the adults were popping the tabs on their beer cans, while others waited for a pot of camp coffee on the fire to start steaming. Conversation and laughter filled the early evening air.

Life would never be the same. But even on that first day, Peggy knew she would be all right.

Early the next week, the chaplain called to see if he could come by and visit. Peggy’s nephew answered. “I’m sorry, she’s not here and probably won’t be back for a couple of hours. She went to the Country Kitchen for lunch.”

The chaplain smiled and hung up. Yes, she’d be all right.

Comments

  1. There are tears in my eyes. Thank you for doing what you do.

  2. This is a vivid illustration of the principle that as you give, it shall be given to you. Chris’s investment in his family and community will keep his own memory alive and ease the transition for his family. That’s an important lesson for our peripatetic society.

  3. This is the heart of the gospel.

  4. I’m sometimes surprised when I come to posts like this to see so few comments.

    Then I try to think of something to say, and can’t really add anything other than this: don’t let the lack of comments discourage you, these posts are pure gold.

  5. I greatly appreciate the chaplaincy posts, and the other posts over the last months that have been taking us away from constantly arguing over the foibles of the evangelical world. Not that we don’t need to be reminded of excesses and issues, but these posts from the real world of Christian ministry and living in faith provide an alternative that invites us to focus on the things that are important. They are healing and perspective changing, and I thank you CM.

  6. CM, thank you for all you do. If someone were thinking of chaplaincy as a career or career change, what advice might you offer? Recognizing that differences exist among states, in general what kind of certification is required? What kind of education might give you the best bang for the buck? Is it possible to do this in a non-denominational way? How might a person gain some real life experience as an intern or some such to see whether or not they were suited? What’s a good entry level job? What is the job market like these days? Would you advise a high school student to consider this as a career?

  7. My uncle Bobby was a bar tender in the Bronx his whole life. When he died people came out of the woodwork. There were men, kids, women. One funny story was told by a kid who went golfing with his dad and Bobby. Somebody drove a ball from the tee and hit Bobby in the head in the fairway. The kid telling the story said he rushed over to find Bobby sitting on the ground bleeding. He asked if he could get him anything and Bobby said, “Yeah, a vodka and tonic.” The kid said he looked at his dad and his dad said, “You heard him! Get him a vodka and tonic!!” This was at the wake that the kid was telling the story. So he got in his cart, drove back to the clubhouse and got him a vodka and tonic. Bobby was about the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever known. My dad is right there 1a and 1b. Anyway, I was reminded of him when I read this and thought I would share what, at his wake at least, was a very funny story. A lot of strangers came together that night.

  8. Thanks for sharing a wonderful story from real life.