“Will you go with me to the funeral in the morning?” my wife Christina asked. “Of course,” was my response.
I knew who the woman was who had died suddenly. Her family goes to our church. Her kids grew up in our church. She and her husband Alan were as active in our church life as any member can be. But try as I might, I could not picture her in my mind. I don’t think I actually knew her. To me she was a stranger. Our lives did not connect.
Some things in life we can control. Other things we cannot. What abject futility it is when our choices result in our own loss or failed connections with others – when we turn our backs, look the other way, or close our ears to those around us – when our “empathy” implodes and becomes just a word instead of something alive with a warm, beating heart.
Our congregation was in shock. Her death was one that was not supposed to happen. Not her. Not now. Not out of the blue and for no apparent medical or self-inflicted reason.
The only other time I was so moved that my world slipped into a dark void from its safe, secure perch and what was clear to me melted into fog was the death of another church member, a young woman fresh out of college, Kate. The loss I felt was only magnified and made more real when I heard one of the epithets her mom shared at her service:
“Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with the night.”
- Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare (slightly edited)
I will never forget those words nor the suffering I saw in her parents when she died.
This time, as I sat in my pew and listened to the service, I began to get to know this amazing woman – this fellow church member, this mom, this wife, this volunteer, this mentor, this living testament to grace and everything that is good, a woman I never took the time to meet or talk to, or share a few moments with.
She was healthy, engaged, happy, still in love with her husband of 35 years. More than one person spoke of their marriage as “perfect” — as perfect as humanity can have perfect marriages.
“I never once saw my parents have a cross word with each other” they said.
“She never had an ill word for another. She seemed to thrive on reaching out to everyone within her orbit. Her glass was perpetually half full.”
Her mission seemed to be to make the world around her as happy as she was. That’s what Pastor Ollie said about her. That’s what her brave twins – Christopher and Breanna — shared about their mom from the pulpit.
“After I left home she texted me every day. She was my best friend,” they both said.
She inspired. She exuded goodness. She was in love with life, they said.
But one morning after drinking her coffee and reading her Bible as she did every day, she suddenly died.
Our minister, Ollie Wagner, drove down to Florida that same day with her husband Alan and son Christopher to meet with her 27 year old daughter in person to tell her the awful news.
The soliloquy that Breanna and Christopher shared with the congregation this morning from the pulpit left not a dry eye in church. Their mother sounded like someone who had been sent to earth by God to give us all an example of goodness – of how we are supposed to treat each other, especially family. The image and aura of an angel in our midst was unmistakable as I – no we — listened to her children speak, and we heard their words float up above our heads in the air from those deep wells of unimaginable sorrow and loss.
Then her children shared words of admiration and strength – of pure love – and I think it was obvious to everyone that their mom was exactly right there by their sides as they bravely spoke to us. Her love shown through their words. And, even when their pain seemed almost unbearable, at times one could see her strength and her will, and her love covering them like a blanket — keeping them warm and safe.
“I will be with you always” was her message. “Don’t fear. Remember,” she had told them, “we can choose faith or we can choose fear.”
Near the end of his tribute to Nancy, Pastor Ollie — and I didn’t understand it at first — talked about Roberto Clemente. I would later find out that Clemente was Alan’s hometown hero and favorite baseball player. Alan grew up in Pittsburgh where Roberto played 18 seasons for the Pirates. But Ollie’s reference was more than that, and the nuances of this good-bye were many.
If Ollie had not gone into the ministry he may have been a good enough baseball player to have gone pro. That is still his love, I know. Clemente is generally thought of as one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, and he is just as admired for his life off the field as a compassionate, caring and giving human being.
Clemente died in an airplane crash on his way to help deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His death was one of those things that was not supposed to happen. Not him. No, not like that. Not someone who was so good, so caring, so selfless, so loved – just like Nancy.
Coming from Ollie, I can’t think of a greater, more heartfelt tribute to Nancy Sisson Crowell than that.
I left her service longing to have been her friend — to at least have known her and to have maybe learned from her. How could I have been so blind?
Some things we do control, and maybe one last gift she left was a wake up call to all of us who don›t love as we could, or who don’t take advantage of our opportunities to be better friends, better neighbors or better more engaged human beings.
Thank you Nancy for your grace and for giving us all an example of how we should live. Thank you so much.