by Laurie Woodum
I didn’t expect a crowd at my brother’s memorial service. His drug and alcohol addictions had mowed a wide swath through family and friends in the course of his 52 years, leaving casualties and severed connections strewn behind him. I thought that it would mostly be family attending. What I witnessed instead, was a packed house.
Part of the service was reserved for people to speak about Alan if they wanted to. Person after person stood up to tell how he helped them: plumbing and car repairs, rides to work, and listening with love—sometimes tough love. Several people mentioned that they thought he was goofy at first (the word came up many times) but grew to love his playfulness.
One pastor said Alan was a mystery to her. She didn’t know him and yet every Sunday he helped one of the church attendees set up for services and then he would leave. She asked him if he was going to attend and he’d say yes and then not show. One day she asked and he said “I’m going to be straight with you. I won’t be coming to services. You can quit asking.” Still he came Sunday after Sunday to help. She said when she looked at his face, she saw a very sad man. I could see it in every photo of him in his later years.
The real miracle, the gift of grace, was the children who spoke. From two of his grandchildren (five years old) to the young adults who grew up in his neighborhood, they came to the podium one at a time or in small groups. A cluster of four girls, around 11 or 12, passed the microphone among themselves reciting the times when he sprayed them with a hose on hot days, gave them popsicles, listened to their young woes, and sang the “Ice Cream and Cake” song. A 10-year-old boy came up with his mom because he wanted to speak but was crying too hard to say much more than, “I loved him.” His mother expressed the common litany of that day: the helping hand, the goofy cheerfulness, the sympathetic ear. A young man, who was stabbed when he was eleven, spoke of Alan’s anger and support around this trauma and Alan’s kindnesses as he was growing up. Child after tearful child spoke of their love for him.
For the three of us sisters and our families, this was a revelation. I’d seen Alan caring tenderly for my mother during her hospital stays and during my father’s final days. I knew his potential. But for most of our family history, we experienced another side. I think the difference was that, although we loved him, we didn’t need him. These people–his neighbors, his wife’s church community–needed him and it brought out the best he could be. He was offering service. It turns out he was the man I always hoped he would become. I just didn’t know it.