I think I grew up with “family envy”; if that term doesn’t appear in any psychology text, then let’s say I invented it. The Nelsons (not their real name) lived several blocks from me and had nine children, an older set and a younger set. Growing up, I was familiar with the younger set. My best friend, Bruce, was the youngest child of the brood, and before him came Gary, who was two years older, then Cathy, another two years, and finally Eric, who was the oldest of the younger set and reminded everyone of Elvis Presley. I saw Bruce quite often, bumped into Cathy and Gary regularly, and seldom saw Eric.
I think I picked a rather strange family to become attached to because they were what we now call dysfunctional. Both parents had profound mental issues. The mother suffered from depression and was once lobotomized; the father was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and left the family when Bruce was very young. When Bruce and I were high school age, it was the older set of children who acted as unofficial guardians to the younger set. Their mother worked for a while at a department store warehouse until she became unfit for the job, and after that money became very tight. In a sense, Bruce had to raise himself. As a teenager he had grown-up cares and worries I never experienced.
I think what attracted me to them was the Nelson style, and nothing would have pleased me better than to be a Nelson boy myself, to be just like them. They all had the Nelson look, the Nelson way of speaking, the Nelson wit, and Nelson mannerisms. Despite their solidly humble, lower middle class roots, all of them were extremely well-informed and bright, but unaffectedly bright. Their speech was thoroughly blue collar, peppered with colloquialisms and profanity, untainted by the influence of any thesaurus, yet they expressed themselves as well as any logician or poet. Their sense of humor and comedic timing was flawless, their sarcasm first rate. No one could ever win a battle of wits against them and none of us wanted to try. Bruce in particular was one of those rare types who could take either side of an argument at different times and come out ahead in each instance without seeming to contradict himself.
As I don’t want this post to get too long, I will just briefly say that Bruce and I had a falling out nearly 13 years ago and rarely see each other. It’s a rather involved story and now is not the time for it. In fact, I saw him for the first time in nine years just two weeks ago, and that event, the reason why Bruce and I saw each other, is really the subject of this post.
Gary Nelson, who was perhaps the best-natured of the Nelsons, led a very interesting life. He was a hell raiser in his youth, got married early, often drank too much and oftener still gave his wife fits, but he always had a good heart and a genuine fondness for many of the people he met and got to know. I would say he was the funniest and most engaging of the Nelsons. People were naturally attracted to him and wanted to be his friend. It came as a great shock to everyone who knew him when sometime in his late twenties Gary had what is known as a personal experience with Jesus Christ, and, not long after that, became a Baptist minister. Everyone thought it was just a phase, one of Gary’s “addictions,” and he’d move on to something else. But he remained a preacher for a very long time and, if I have the story straight, would still be one today if it weren’t for the waywardness of some of his kids, which his congregation felt was too unseemly in a minister. He was forced to resign because of it, but still kept to the church.
You can think what you want about religious conversions, but I believe many of them are of great benefit the person who has undergone the spiritual awakening. Call it clarity of sight or complete self-deception, either way the result appears to be an enhanced stability and increased sense of purpose in one’s life. Gary up until that time had been fairly aimless, but from all accounts he fully embraced his faith and became an extremely charismatic preacher; he put everything into it. I say from all accounts, because, up until two weeks ago, I had never heard him preach. But having heard him finally, it was merely a confirmation of what I already knew was true.
The reason why I saw Gary preach and met Bruce again after nine years was because Gary’s wife, Betsy, died. She had cancer and had known for 17 months that time was running out. I only knew Betsy when she was young. She was extremely pretty back then and very nice, and always had the “Betsy smile,” as Gary described it. It was she who became “born again” first, and it was she who always kept Gary on the straight and narrow. Without her, I think he would have been lost. I know that’s always the thing you’re supposed to say about husbands, but in Gary’s case it was true. They had their share of difficulties early on, but Betsy stuck with Gary and in the end they were married for 32 years.
One of the older Nelsons, Don, a very good friend of mine these days, called to let me know Betsy had died and when the funeral was going to be. I hadn’t seen Gary for maybe 20 years, Betsy for even longer, and thought such a stretch of years would excuse me from going. It would have meant taking time off from work besides. But then I realized I would have to be a rare sort of asshole to not go. Gary was my friend, his own brother called and told me about it, work wasn’t particularly busy, how could I not go? So I went.
I arrived late that Friday morning to a smallish white church whose parking lot and the drive leading up to it was jammed with cars, threatening to spill out onto the street. A parking lot attendant managed to find a spot for me which I was just barely able to maneuver my minivan into. Entering the church, I was conducted to an overflow section that looked out onto the nave through a large opening in a wall gained through means of sliding panels. I found a seat at the very back row of a set of folding chairs. The woman next to me delicately dabbed her eyes with a napkin and some sobs were audible here or there; up at the pulpit, one of Gary and Betsy’s daughters was reading a statement she had written about her mother. As she read, she fought hard to keep her voice steady, but often the air supply to her larynx seemed to squeeze off and her voice would become thin and trail away. She had long, blonde hair and, as I saw her only in profile, I couldn’t see anything of her face.
When she had finished, a man strode up whom I instantly recognized as Gary. He had a bible with him which he opened to a section and laid on the lectern. He began to speak and you could tell right away his speech wasn’t from a prepared text. Several sentences into to it, I realized it wasn’t Gary at all, but his son, Gary Junior. Gary Junior was the main reason, from what I heard, why his father had lost his job as minister. He was the black sheep. In fact, Gary Junior had been in the newspaper just a few weeks before for stealing money out of his aunt’s checking account to purchase drugs. His aunt, Gary’s sister (one of the older set), had turned him in for his own good. And here he was up there talking about his mother, he whose actions were certainly of no comfort to Betsy during her remaining weeks of life.
I had never met Gary Junior before, but in that setting I couldn’t help thinking of the parable of the prodigal son. If I knew about him, certainly almost everyone there knew about him, too. Was there forgiveness for him, like there was for the prodigal son?
The oldest daughter spoke after him, and then Gary himself got up to speak. He too had a bible and positioned it just so on the stand. He took a moment to step back and survey the congregation. Then he said, “Good looking family, huh?” A small murmur of assent went through the audience. “Well,” he continued, “they didn’t get it from the old man, I can tell you that!” That drew a big laugh, and all the tension drained away.
The truth was, Gary’s appearance had dramatically changed over the past 20 years. His hair had gone completely white and his face was lined and a little shrunken the way some vegetables collapse in a bit when they go bad. When Gary was younger, he was handsome and athletic. I have no doubt he’s still vital and strong, but he really looked older than his years. His voice had changed too, deeper and more mature than I remember. I now think it’s funny I mistook his son for him, for the contrast between the recollection I have of Gary and how he looks today was that striking.
He talked about Betsy, told the story of how they met, made references to some passages in the bible, and then said something which will forever live in my memory. He said, “I already know I will never get married again because I’m still married.” He stepped back to give that sentence a little time to sink in and then gestured upwards to the great, vaulted ceiling of the church. “I’m still married because she’s still alive!” his amplified voice proclaimed, ringing all around. And for that moment I really believed it was true. I had just read a novel where, at one point, the main character viewed the body of his son in a morgue and noticed how the corpse was no longer his son at all, that it was a merely vacant and lifeless shell, and it occurred to him that “our bodies are the least of us.” If we can accept for a moment that there is an afterlife, if you can buy the Christian concept of heaven, then it is true, you live on, and our corporeal selves have only been discarded as a snake sloughs off its skin. At that moment, in that church, having placed myself amidst all those believers who responded by saying “yes!” and “praise God!”, it became a fact, as credible and verifiable as mitosis or spectrum analysis. The atmosphere made it that way. It really felt like Betsy was alive and with us.
At the reception, I went up to Gary and told him he had said some astonishing things. “Astonishing things?” he repeated. Then he recognized me (yours truly hasn’t changed much over the years) and gave me a massive bear hug that I had to either return with the same force or be crushed. The collar of his shirt was stained by tears; not his, I could tell, but others. We didn’t have time to talk more, but that hug really said it all.
Then I ran into Bruce, whom I at first didn’t recognize. He looked altered, but I think handsomer, as if a sculptor had refined him. There were a few other old pals I hadn’t seen for many years who appeared for the most part shorter, grayer, and with less hair. The wife of one of my buddies actually looked better and younger than ever. It wound up being a reunion that sort of put me in a state of semi-shock. Although we all hadn’t seen each others for years, it felt comfortable, and if it weren’t for the demands of work, I think I could have hung out there all afternoon.
Bruce walked me back to my car and apologized for what he had done 13 years ago (that story I’m not ready to go into). Nine years ago, at a class reunion, he had said the same thing, and I told him then as I did now that I wasn’t mad, just disappointed our friendship had been spoiled. We shook hands and I mentioned our paths would probably cross again at some point, and that’s how we parted.
That event stays with me after two weeks. The concept that someone who died can still be alive, although not new, has really struck root and given me pause. Can death be a “graduation”? I think perhaps it could.