Saturday, February 18, 2012
In Need of a Sub
2012 started with the loss of one of my spiritual mentors, a faithful friend and travelling companion. Now, in the middle of February, I've lost the other pole on my compass for this pilgrimage. My good friend George passed away this week. I just spoke to him on the phone earlier this week - well, I listened while he yelled at me - but it seemed like one of our regular conversations. Yesterday I found out he's packed up the tent and he's left.
An early encounter with George went like this. Our church was meeting in a large basement of an old building that had been a Zellers. On this Sunday we were having a potuck after the service and word was out on the street. George came in for coffee at the start of the service but couldn't stick around. While I was speaking I noticed him come in, come halfway down the steps, look around and walk back out. Finally he came back and I was still talking, probably on my second, "so let me wrap up by saying..." and George asked someone back by the stairs, "GODDAMMIT HOW LONG IS HE GONNA TALK!!!???" My friend George was hungry and my talking was keeping the party from starting. My conclusion came much clearer and more quickly.
A couple weeks ago, George and I were out for breakfast. The routine: stop by his place and load the trunk of the car up with bags of bottles he'd collected, take them to the recycling depot he'd been told never come back to, he'd wait in the car while I did the deal. Sometimes he would get $7, sometimes $10, this last time he scored $17. When I got in the car I handed him the twoonie. "That's all they gave you?!!!" he shouted. Then I gave him the five and he smiled. Then I handed him the ten and I'm pretty sure there was a tear in his eye. And then he asked me, "So whatta ya say you take me out for breakfast at our favourite place, you ol' french toast?"
He either called me a food of some kind or he'd refer to me with something like, "Your blessedness". On the way to Cora's he'd start to preach or sing a hymn and tell me not to worry that he wasn't going to take over my job but he could. And each time I'd offer him the chance to sing or preach if he'd come with me on Sunday morning. He'd brush off my invitation with, "I can't sit for a whole hour!" And he really couldn't.
At Cora's he would always order the same meal. This last time though he was swayed by the picture of a special coffee in the menu. It wasn't the caffeine he wanted, it was the pile of whipped cream on top of the coffee that made his eyes get big. So our last time out, (which turns out to be last time ever) I ordered that drink to go along with his usual: o.j., plain oatmeal, extra sugar. He sweet talked the waitress, read words off the walls to me and told me stories about his good friend Joe. When the coffee arrived he grabbed his spoon and ate the whipped cream by scoops. Once he was down to the coffee he pushed it towards me, finished.
I tried to engage in some conversation but he was having a harder time than usual hearing me or staying on a single topic. We came back to one of his favourite questions for me, "How can you believe in Jesus if you can't see him?" And once again I'd launch into an explanation that bored him about 3 seconds in. Thirty seconds later he was telling me about Jesus and starting up another sermon which he first threatened to take over my job with and then relented and told me he didn't want my job.
And so it would go until the oatmeal arrived. He sometimes had scrambled eggs but with only a tooth or two in his mouth it had to be something soft and usually it was oatmeal. When the oatmeal arrived the ritual would begin. He would cover the entire serving in about a half-inch of sugar. (I wish that was an exaggeration.) Then he would dig a trench with his spoon and pour in the cream that came with it. The he would start eating by the spoonfuls: 1/4 oatmeal, 1/2 sugar, 1/4 cream. After the cream that came with the meal ran out he would start opening the little coffee creamers and go through those until he was full.
I can truly say that I've never met anyone more grateful, more thankful and appreciative for a little kindness than my friend, George. Years ago now I started hugging him when I saw him and that's what he came to expect whenever we met. Sometimes when we hugged he'd lay his head against my chest, he was shorter than me, and just stay there for a bit. A bit longer than I was ever comfortable with.
And today I wish I could do it one more time.
Years back I took George to the Liquor store to return some bottles to them. George didn't drink but he did collect all kinds of bottles. So there I was, the pastor, standing next to George as we unloaded a pile of whiskey bottles onto the check out lane. I looked over my should and right behind me was the Roman Catholic bishop for PEI. The thought came to me that I should explain to the bishop that these weren't MY bottles but it only took me a second to realize that if I could identify with either of these two men it was my friend George. I saved my explanations and instead turned back to George and cheered as the cashier counted the coins out into his hand.
George has been a missionary to me for the last 8 years of my life. He's taught me about love, about thankfulness, about taking pleasure in the small things, about opening my heart to the unexpected apostles of God in my life. My north and my south feel empty today and I will pray that God uses the weight of my memories of these two friends to continue to provide tension for this journey between heaven and hell.
I've got a lot to learn and I can't afford to lose any more teachers...