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We trudge along, immersed in the day-to-day challenges, opportunities, joys and sorrows. Every once in a while, we stop to take stock of our life, to evaluate our existence, and to ask the question: “What is the measure of a man...of a woman?” How does one reckon righteousness?
Unfortunately for many, if not most of us, this is too rare an occurrence. We choose, instead, to go along to get along. We opt to ride the current of life rather than try to assess it or to swim against the tide, against the mainstream of humanity. It is easier to ignore prickling questions than to address them. It is more comfortable not to respond than it is to enter the question and find ourselves lacking.
But every once in a while, we are jolted into an immediacy that refuses denial or avoidance. Every once in a while, something happens that forces us to come face-to-face with life’s fragility. Something happens that causes us to gasp with incredulity. It makes us stand up and take note of our profound powerlessness. Death knocks at the door of life and enters before we can say: “Come in.”
This is exactly what happened on a warm June evening as folks were enjoying their evening meal. It happened on one of Brunswick County’s legendary dirt roads, a well-worn, potholed, nearly mile-long entry to the homes it borders.
A kind and caring man had just delivered some azalea bushes to his neighbors. He was fulfilling a promise made, generously and graciously. In his typical fashion, he had declined help. Errand accomplished, he left as he had arrived, with a smile creasing his face and a wave good-bye.
Neither he nor the neighbors he had just graced would know the wave was to be his final farewell. They went inside to share supper with the family. He simply turned his golf cart in the direction of his own home, just a few feet distant, and moments later slumped over the wheel, succumbing to a massive and fatal heart attack.
Waves of shock rolled over the neighborhood. None of us could believe what had happened. In our heads, we all knew that life is tenuous. At one time or another, we had all commented: “Here today, gone tomorrow.” But it had never hit our hearts as it did that night.
Grief-stricken, one by one, folks began to gather. Words gave way to silent, tearful hugs. We drew close to each other, pulling chairs into a circle of humanity that embraced Mary, a woman who had gone from wife to widow with startling rapidity.
In the face of death, a diverse group melted into unity. Neighbors mingled with firefighters who met folks from a local funeral service who were introduced to family members. As the news flew, the group grew.
There were, in that room, no strangers. There was no distinction between those who attended church or not. There were only friends, only people who cared. There was no separation of elders from younger people or men from women. I looked around and saw only a caring community.
In the midst of freely flowing tears, some stoically serious faces, and heads nodding with a terrible credulity in the face of incredulity, laughter began to bubble up from the depths of recollection. The stories could not be restrained. We were beginning to remember, recall, recognize, respect and reckon the righteousness of a man who lived for others.
The stories started as a weeping wife repeated her refrain of love: “He was a happy man. No one was as happy as he was.” She remembered the course of the past 24 hours, a day that confirmed her husband’s unique brand of optimism.
“He phoned our daughter in Florida and heard all about the antics of her 5-year-old son. And we laughed and laughed. He called our son and spoke with him for a long time. I don’t know why, but I cooked his favorite meal today and he told me how much he liked it. Then he went out to dig in the dirt, his favorite thing.”
Underneath the words a reality lurked. Unbeknownst to all, it had been a day of farewells, a day of happy goodbyes. It had been a day of giving and forgiving.
The stories continued. This time they came from the visitors.
“He did more with one leg than most people with two.”
“I remember when he asked me to help fix the road. I came home crippled from lifting those heavy buckets of dirt and he was scarcely breathing hard.”
“He got on that lawnmower and mowed up and down the road so that the side grasses wouldn’t look terrible. Then he’d finish up by mowing our yard because he knew I was having a hard time getting to it.”
“He was a piece of work, all right. Sometimes, he was frustrating, but he always demanded more of himself than anyone else.”
How does one reckon righteousness? I guess the stories give us a good example. Righteousness is revealed in a life lived with no regrets, only the recognition of redemption. Righteousness never drains life of possibilities. It rejoices in the value of choices made. Righteousness happens when a person, or many persons, tilt at the windmills constructed by naysayers and spear them with optimism.
Righteous persons are comfortable with themselves, but not complacent. They choose to accept who they are and work with their talents and graces rather than to mourn what may be missing and do nothing. They will not accept diminishment, only development.
Star Cross Drive has been graced with the presence of such a person. Vernon Ward was a righteous man. I dare to say he is such a man because I believe that, even now, Vernon is in our midst. I believe he is among the saints whose presence is real while it is invisible. He will also live in the visible goodness of his family, his wife, children and grandchildren.
We have been touched by his righteousness. Brunswick County has been blessed by his righteousness. All who knew him were changed. He was a happy man and we are happy to have known him. Every time we smile and wave goodbye, Vernon will be smiling and waving with us and it will be a fare thee well for all.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four.