Written by Gene Cashman III
Photography by Mark Davenport
arlier this week I was going through some old papers and came across a nearly forgotten church bulletin. As I unfolded the worn paper, memories welled up unexpectedly. The images were as fresh as the day they occurred. I remembered them all very well even though I had not thought of them in quite some time. Betsy and I had just unpacked our bags in Bluffton for a needed rest when the call came in. It was Rob, an old roommate from Auburn. He had bad news. Mitch Drew, a dear friend, had been hit by a car. He had been chasing his youthful lab puppy down a quiet country road. It was a blind corner. Rob said he probably never felt a thing. The puppy was fine, but Mitch was gone. Rob’s words hung in the air. I listened, but did not say a word. The realization was surreal; a deeply influential person had passed in the blink of an eye. I had lived with Mitch in London and we had traveled the continent together and shared many good times. My heart broke at the news. I remember Betsy coming into the room, still unaware, asking what I wanted for lunch. “Honey,” I said with awkward pause “Mitch died.” She dropped the knife. “Oh” she muttered, the words tapering off. She spoke again but made no sense as she walked into my embrace. We hugged and cried for our friend.
The bulletin was now pretty faded. Many of the words were illegible, but one could still make out the key themes of the service. Mitch was a larger than life character, with an eye for the sublime and a heart for the lost, but he was never pretentious. He journeyed with great purpose and zeal in his time, but was never too good for anyone. His life mantra was ‘only souls matter on this earth.’ He lived as he spoke and always had, although not with such passion for his faith. Mitch’s transformation into such a strong man of faith was powerful and moved many of his peers. It was an absolute must that we travel to his memorial. So, we repacked our things and set out for Locust Fork, Alabama. The memorial was very poignant, an emotional testament to his life and the greater work still to be done by a congregation of like minded believers. Regardless of one’s spiritual leanings the service was special, even joyful in spite of the sadness. I pondered these memories as I refolded the paper. It had already been five long years since that service. I leaned back in my chair and took stock of my life since that day.
At the time Betsy and I were deeply moved and made a decision to consciously live with more passion and purpose -- so much so that on our way back from the memorial service we decided to make a detour to see some old friends. We were so filled with emotion and eagerness to share our new outlook, to reminisce about Mitch, life and our mutual callings that the extra drive, of several hours, was no problem. We talked with our friends for hours. They were a sweet couple who always offered us grounding perspective. They had prepared a meal in the event of our arrival. It was southern comfort food, meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Since both were preacher’s kids they were well versed in the traditional ways of helping a southerner cope with loss. Smother the suffering in down home cooking and listen for as long as your patience holds out. After the exquisite meal and deep conversation we said our farewells and beat a fast track back to the coastal empire.
In just 48 hours time we would return to Bluffton more desperate for life, more devoted to love, more convicted of the importance of our lives than ever before. We would return from the mountain, praying the descent wouldn’t dissolve our will to live a more consistent life of service to friend and foe. Oh, how we would fail.
All those old promises crowded my thoughts as I stood up and put Mitch’s bulletin back in a tattered shoebox. It was my shoebox of special mementos and contained a patchwork quilt of personal history. Little snippets of my past stored away to remind me of the places I have journeyed, the lessons I have learned. I placed the box back on my top closet shelf. Ironic, I thought, returning such a poignant box of memories to a dark storage place. Ironic that I was doing nothing more than thumbing through hard fought life lessons. Casting the box aside, in the midst of my other tasks, was almost too true to real life form. There it sat with just some old hats, my golf shoes and the fragmented parts and pieces of my dusty tuxedo. Memories resealed for another time, perhaps when I was less preoccupied, able to devote more attention to applying them to my current life perspective. Yet, I couldn’t help shake the memory of hope that particular tragedy instilled in me; the hope that can still exist, even in a fallen world.
I met Betsy later that evening for dinner. It was a quiet restaurant. One of those places couples go to huddle around small tables and talk of deep things while drinking over-priced wine. It may have been cliché but we weren’t going to be the exception this particular evening. We huddled around a small table, in dim light and talked about our day. After the usual reports I told her about the bulletin.
I told her about how remembering all my unfulfilled promises made me feel like I wasn’t living to my fullest potential. Betsy smiled. “You know, it’s not up to you to measure or determine how much of an impact you have in this world.” That sort of response never made me feel reassured, but she continued anyway. “It is, however, up to you to do the right things and remain true to the covenant truths that guide you.” I squirmed, because I knew I’d lost focus on things that were important. She pressed further. “We, among many, have the ability to surprise others with the hope we have in this world.” I smiled and thought back to Mitch. That was his message exactly. I left the table that night relieved and a bit in awe that cleaning out my closet could be so meaningful. I had been leveled by a faded funeral bulletin, five years after the fact. It’s amazing how we can all be surprised by hope, even in the strangest of places.