Thirty years ago, today my father died. I was seventeen years old.
I’ve written about this before in this space. It’s been a topic that in many ways haunted me for years, dominated my thoughts and development for years but now lays claim to less of my head space than it used to. I’ll include links to the previous columns about my dad in the comments, if those are of interest to you.
But thirty years is a long time and I’d planned to write about that milestone. But then, something else happened.
My friend Bruce died suddenly this week, leaving behind a wife and two sons and countless friends and family who are reeling in the devastating wake of his loss. Bruce was an amazing man who’s impact on the lives of those around him will be difficult to measure, unless one were able to count the tears shed, the toasts raised, the chuckles shared in his memory over the coming weeks.
I think if you added up that number, you’d still have to multiply it pretty significantly to have some way to comprehend the impact that this man had on the people in his life. Maybe then, one could grasp it.
But I doubt it.
In thinking about Bruce and my father and the other people that I’ve lost along the way to here, I’m reminded of the fact that, at least to me, every time I encounter the loss of someone in my life, it brings me back to every other loss I’ve experienced. It’s like every loss is that last loss, and all the others along with it. I’d like to think that that is part of why Bruce’s loss is so devastating. But I think there’s more to it than that.
This one’s just not fair.
As my father was dying, I remember telling my mother that it wasn’t fair that he was so sick. It wasn’t fair that this was happening to us all. Not for the last time she told me, not unkindly, that “life isn’t fair.”
That hurt at the time and it hurts now just as much. It’s not fair, especially with the year that we’ve all had, the year we’ve all joked about. “Oh, that 2020 again…”
We’ve all said it and we’ve all thought it and yeah, it’s been a tough year, but this one’s just not fair. It hurts because we didn’t see it coming and it hurts because thinking about a world without Bruce in it is simply not a world any of us were prepared to be a part of.
Bruce and his family were among the first friends we made when we arrived in Northern Virginia ten years ago. His oldest son and mine were in scouts together and a few other activities. They got along well and have remained friendly to this day. Bruce’s younger son was often a classmate of my youngest daughter, and so together Bruce and I became the unofficial “Dad Brigade” for school field trips and activities. We survived Smithsonians, nature centers, science museums, amusement parks, concerts, track meets, soccer matches, scout meetings, field days, class parties, you name it.
I remember a few particularly challenging, all-day field trips where I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about my day, only to have that whole plan get upended and turn into something that might be fun after all when I heard Bruce’s voice behind me say, “OK, I’m not the only dad here. We’ve got this!”
On one occasion, I remember him gripping my shoulder and leaning in to say, quietly, just to me: “Rob, thank God you’re here.”
I’m not too proud to say that that made my day at the time. I keep thinking about that moment this week as I try to process what’s just happened. That moment was really Bruce in a nutshell. An unexpected warm and friendly comment, given by a true friend when least expected, with a smile and a shared sense of, “we’ll get through this together.” Always smiling, always giving of himself.
I can feel every head nodding in agreement across Springfield and beyond as you read this. I know you all understand. That shared understanding is unique and special and while I’m so glad we have it together, I’m also very sad because that aspect of our lives is gone, suddenly and yes, unfairly.
I never saw Bruce angry. I’m sure he had moments of anger, or disappointment, pain, like we all do and are having now, the Bruce I knew was gregarious, hard-working, ceaselessly dedicated to his family, supportive of everyone, and just really, really kind.
As the troop leader for my sons’ scout troop, he was for years inundated with an often wild and motley crew of boys, many with their own strong opinions on how to do (or not do) things as a group. I often left the meetings with a headache and I wasn’t leading anything. I never saw him lose his patience with the boys. He never snapped. It was always, “OK, let’s get back to…” whatever the task at hand was: a birdhouse or a tool box or a skit for the pack meeting. He was always patient, always kind, like that verse from Corinthians, which everyone uses for weddings.
That verse is very much in my head this week. While most people think of it as a statement on romantic love, it’s really not. (Being married to a clergy person has subjected me to this conversation after every wedding we’ve attended.)
Paul was writing to the church at Corinth because they were fighting amongst themselves. They were not treating one another well and he was trying to remind them that love was the most powerful force for connection and community available to them, and that they really ought to try being a little kinder to one another.
Part of that passage reads:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I’ll admit, I’m emotional about this, but I feel that while Paul may have been talking to the church in Corinth, he might as well have been talking about Bruce.
His amazing wife and phenomenal sons face a much harder road ahead than do any of us. It’s road I know well and one I would never wish on anyone. But I find myself thinking, if this had happened to another from our group of friends; to another parent we all know and care about, what would Bruce do?
I think he’d show up, as he so often did. Not only to events and field trips, but to my mother’s funeral, which he and his family did when she passed a few years ago, helping my kids immeasurably by not being the only kids there at church.
I think he’d find a way to quietly lead the rest of us. I could see him organizing a “Council of Dads” to try and step in and help, not only in the first weeks of this change for the family, but long-term, with a “going forward” approach. I think he’d have given of his time, his seemingly limitless energy, and his immeasurable kindness.
He might have thought, perhaps it’s not enough, but it would be what he could do for his friends, and he’d do it without hope for reward or acknowledgment, and more importantly, without hesitation.
I would like to be more like Bruce.
The last text message I got from Bruce was just over a week ago, regarding my attempts to get our kids together on a Monday for a socially distanced lunch hour. They weren’t able to make it, but he went out of his way to, well, to answer it like Bruce. “Thanks for thinking of him and inviting him and please keep him in mind if you guys do it again.”
A simple, “We’re swamped, maybe next time,” would have been fine. That would have been the response that most people would send.
Bruce was a dedicated, selfless man. He was fun to be around and while he had a big personality, it always seemed like he was just to the left of the center of the conversation, passing the ball with an alacrity and quick wit that made him fun to be around. He was a fierce and loyal friend. He loved his family.
We will all miss him, none of us as much as his wife and children. I’m glad that our paths crossed and that for a short time, our lives intersected and we had the chance to know one another and become friends.
I know I’m a better person for that friendship.
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