His was a long goodbye. Fourteen years with Alzheimer’s. This stout-hearted man went down slowly. When death is a long road relief surpasses grief at the end. At last no more suffering. Only sorrow. He can’t be replaced. We gather to mourn our loss.
He was not my hero. I came because of collateral damage and homage to history. The women who were my companions for the ritual had other stories. They loved him, he loved them, all in different ways. After the banquet with his best surviving friend at the head of our long table and his most devoted acolyte seated on his left, after everyone else left, we sat with our glasses of wine by the fire and they told intimate stories that described their hero from his halo to his magnificent fortitude to his clay feet. No tears were shed but there were moments of profound silence and sighs as deep as a river.
I knew him, felt his magnetism, most strongly when we were at odds. We were often at odds. Before he went into the cloud we met again. It was not as if nothing had happened. We had just lived beyond it, became bigger than we once were, each of us humbled by our mistakes, each of us forgiving what we could not forgive before. I felt nothing of the old rancor when I sat at the banquet table and listened to the stories. I felt only sympathy when the sisters shared their stories by firelight before we all were too tired to speak or listen. We would all sleep a little lighter knowing what the next day would bring.
We went to breakfast at an old haunt with old friends from the night before. We talked over coffee and biscuits. We left and went straight to the chapel. We got there early to get a seat. The chapel slowly filled and we turned our heads to see who was there, who did we remember, who might be there too. We waited and fingered our programs. We spoke in low voices. Who was there and who was not there? We never mentioned the absence of the hero we had all come to bury. His absence was a presence, a palpable presence.
We stood when the family came into the chapel. And we sat for the service. I faded when the minister selected by the family did what ministers do when we bury our dead. I listened as the best friend read scripture and the chief acolyte delivered his tribute. It moved me to tears. To be a hero you must display extraordinary courage in pursuit of a higher good. There was never a doubt this man was a hero. The evidence was overwhelming. He was the one who enjoined us all to take up the banner of social justice. He was the cornerstone of our community. He rallied us and we answered his call. More stories were told and a hymn was sung. We remembered him with each other and saw him in our identities. He had invited us to be baptized in the truth of our ubiquitous equality and we had accepted his invitation. We had waited for a long time to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is the first step in moving on.
Our gathering that evening was informal. The children and grandchildren of our hero came to visit. We told funny stories and leaned in close to look at the lines in each others faces. There was such tenderness in our mutual loss. We were subdued in our very human relief to be among the mourners, not the one mourned. We had waited for years to be able to grieve and say farewell to the man whose shadow was so large we could not but walk inside of it. We were now on our own. With each other. We are what he left us with. What a bright and terrible gift.
How to bury your hero? History tells of great processionals, elaborate monuments, wailing and the gnashing of teeth. We did not follow precedent. He was not that kind of hero. His processional was heart-felt tribute, his monument is a community he pledged his life to and instead of weeping and wailing, by his direction, down by the riverside, we study war no more.