In full bloom and fragrance, the lilacs sang an irresistible opus, and I reached out to pull one closer to my nose. “Smell your own damn lilacs!” my neighbor yelled, and I struggled to laugh and breathe deeply at the same time. Like a snarky, stand-up comic, John inspired laughter with his satire. If his barbs shot across your bow–you were loved.
“I can’t reach my lilacs, John” I replied. “I have to smell yours. Mine are too high.” And I took a fresh whiff of lilac and started down the road with my dog, just another walk on another day. And days passed and the many tiny florets creating the blooms dropped to the ground, purple dots under the bushes; and some stayed and turned brown, but either way—before you knew it and way too soon—the lilacs were gone.
And then I came outside to go to work, and discovered my own gone. A line of trimmed lilac bushes stood where spindly giants with invisible buds once swayed; all my bushes cut down properly, right where they should be, ready to produce beautiful, reachable blooms next year. And I knew it was John. John trimmed those lilacs, plotting the moment I mentioned blooms too high. But how had he managed to cut down such tall lilacs right under my nose?
And I wondered about my neighbor John. He worked like an elf, like one of the merry band the cobblers and Snow White and all those old fairy tale folk depend on for salvation. He never let you see him doing his good deeds, and he never stopped doing them. Like magic, the woodpile filled up. Like magic, your grass got cut. Like magic, the animals were cared for and the plants got watered, and every so often in the fog of dawn, you may catch a glimpse of him going about his work like a leprechaun, but you dare not mention his name for fear of breaking the spell he toiled under so happily.
“John was a workaholic” his wife informed the funeral director, and the fact landed in his obituary, whether or not that was the intent; and even though I witnessed the exchange and rolled it over in my mind, I’m still not sure if Wanda made the claim for her husband with pride or frustration. Maybe a bit of both. Maybe that’s forty-one years of marriage.
But I saw the pride and love and admiration in her face the day Wanda told me about her husband’s, stealthy, elf-like walks in the woods, checking for signs like an Indian brave, looking for my cat, Chester, disappeared and thought to come to no good end for a kitty who slipped out into the wild. John was looking out for both of us, protecting his neighbor from any tragic tufts of fur caught in the tiger lilies; and when Wanda and I thought of that around the kitchen table, we both sighed and knew how able John was with deeds of compassion while his deep struggle with the exchange of words left him stuck between bouts of silence and spitting vinegar. Certainly, when the adage held and actions spoke louder, no one could complain about John, except perhaps those who longed for conversation and a mourning wife sipping coffee. Some wager he kept the dam walled because of the force of the water. It’s hard to know. Like all men, John was simple and complicated.
Considering all the work he did, it is amazing John died sitting down, yet no surprise and some consolation that he went in his favorite chair in front of the TV with the remote in his hand and the Weather Channel giving updates across the room. There’s a general consensus among those gathering to mourn that John was watching the weather in order to gauge the best time to cut someone else’s grass.
And there is genuine concern, then relief and then pride in the grandson who came home from high school to find him in that chair.
“It’s okay. I was supposed to find him”, he tells his grandmother. And somehow the young man is even taller than he was the day before, and the tension of death lifts just a bit, and the room fills with the possibility of grace, and hope seeps in through the cracks to beat back loss and whisper the promise that John lives forever in the lilacs.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17
Rev. Darlene L. Kelley methodistothermadness.com 6/15/15