This past week was “bittersweet”.
Last Sunday afternoon (June 5th) we watched our daughter walk across the stage at Horlick High School as she received her diploma. We saw many of these “kids” grow into adults over the past four years and that afternoon they spoke of the opportunities that awaited them. They were ready to take the world by storm and follow their dreams, where ever they may lead.
We were the same way. To naïve to know any better, we were willing to take risks. You couldn’t tell us no because we knew we could do whatever we set out to do. And as we plotted our life course, it was going to be smooth sailing all the way. Go to college, start a career making $100,000, get married, raise a family, retire, travel and then die peacefully in our sleep.
The funny thing is-life has a way of taking us down that bumpy, curvy road instead of the straight, smooth one we intended to travel.
I still remember naively exchanging wedding vows with Amy. We were young and dumb. We had this perfect picture painted and we didn’t understand why this married couple chuckled at the vows we wrote. But reality sets in and there is a reason that you agree to stay together “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”
Late last year, my friend Dick Bayer found out that a tumor on his brain was cancerous. At 64, Dick was in the second half of his life. He had embarked on a second career as the Veteran Service Officer for Racine County (a job I thought was tailor made for him), his grand children were reaching adulthood and I am sure his thoughts were turning to the day that he would retire to spend the rest of his days with his wife Karen.
Instead his world was turned upside down, overnight, as this once healthy man would face months of medical challenges related to both the progression of the cancer and the treatment he would receive. Most people would be scared and I am sure there was a part of Dick that was, but Dick wasn’t “most people.”
Dick Bayer was a man of faith and going into this battle, he knew that his God could very well heal him or that his God could call him home. In so many words, Dick was comfortable with that. If he was healed, it would be a testimony and if he died, it would be his gain because he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, where he was going. Dick knew that this world was not his home but that he was just passing through. That reassurance drove everything that Dick did, including how he coped with this horrific disease.
Six years ago, I almost died from a severe case of pancreatitis. I spent 28 days in ICU and 38 days in the hospital. My recovery took nearly a year and that experience has profoundly impacted my life to this day. Dick and his wife prayed for me and when I came out of ICU and was coherent, Dick came and sat with me, offering words of encouragement.
I mention that because the first time I saw Dick after he began his treatments, we spoke about the future. In so many words, Dick implied that I knew what it was like to stand at death’s door and to be ok with either outcome. When they wheeled me into ICU, I didn’t know if I was ever going home but I was at peace with whatever happened. In the days that followed, my wife was faced with losing her husband of 14 years and though she struggled, she also found a peace that “transcends all understanding.” As we left that day, I told Dick, either way you win. He knew what I meant.
That Sunday afternoon we watched our daughter graduate but Sunday evening we said goodbye to an old friend. I don’t know why but this was the hardest funeral I have ever attended. I wasn’t as close to Dick as I could have been. Life gets in the way. But I respected Dick.
Usually I am not at a loss for words, but on Sunday night I had a hard time expressing my thoughts when asked to record a video of recollections for the family. Perhaps it was surreal waiting in line to greet the family and then seeing my friend laying there for the first time. It became real-he was gone.
But Monday was a different story as I attended the celebration of Dick’s life. Songs were sung, stories were told, family members shared and the pastor gave the most unique eulogy I think I have ever heard-he began by talking about Racine’s greatest inventors and businessmen-men who we would deem as great men. And then he put Dick in that same group as he relayed his stories about Dick.
For just a moment, we were given a glimpse inside the private life of Dick Bayer and the funny thing is-he wasn’t much different than I had pictured him to be. With Dick, what you saw was what you got-in a good way. He had a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin. He was always smiling. He was a man of integrity. He was a man of faith. He was tender hearted. He was a compassionate warrior and a servant leader. He was the real deal!
Both Dick and his wife Karen are relational. They mentored married couples. They served their church. They genuinely cared about people. Dick was a role model-the type of person you could look up to. He made you feel appreciated. He listened. He encouraged. He was supportive. He stood by his wife’s side and supported her career as the Executive Director of Leadership Racine and he supported his church through good times and bad. As I told his pastor, Dick never had roast pastor for lunch on Sunday afternoons.
He was faithful. His Christian faith encompassed everything he did. He lived it 24/7 and it shaped who he was. He saw his work with the veterans, not just as a job, but as a ministry. He didn’t need to preach because his life was a living testimony of his faith and his actions spoke louder than words. He walked the talk! He trusted his God to provide and when looking for a job, he told his support group to watch-God would provide. Though I don’t have time to go into it now, there were several twists and turns leading to his last position but it was evident God’s hand was in it.
He was a compassionate warrior, a veteran who cared about other veterans. He was a man who stood up to injustice. He marched in Washington and was a card carrying member of the NAACP. He adopted a Vietnamese family, becoming a surrogate father to the children after their own father passed away. And he was loved by his children and his grandchildren.
And he was a servant leader-whether greeting at church or serving on the church board, Dick would often be found serving others behind the scenes-shunning the limelight that so many others crave.
As we celebrated Dick’s life, we laughed and cried but in the end we knew, all was well….
That doesn’t take away the void left in our hearts - we still mourn the loss of this man we knew and respected but we are left with the hope that we will see him again.
During his illness I prayed for Dick. Like so many I prayed for a miracle, knowing that God could heal him. I begged and pleaded. But I also knew that God is sovereign and that he sees the entire picture where as we see just one small part of it. If we truly believe that we are all connected in some way, Dick’s life and his death have meaning and that one day we will see how all of our struggles and trials fit together to bring about God’s purpose in this life and beyond.
About a week before Dick left us, I was praying for him when a Chris Tomlin song – I Will Rise - came on and the words spoke to my heart:
There's a peace I've come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There's an anchor for my soul
I can say "It is well"
That was Dick, his heart and flesh were failing but he was able to say “it is well” because he could see that the finish line was in sight and that the race he was running was almost over.
But it is the refrain that gave me reassurance as Tomlin sang:
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise, I will rise
That was the promise that Dick held onto, no more sorrow, no more pain…
On Wednesday, June 1st-Dick Bayer’s name was called and he rose before his God, finishing the race that was set before him. And as he crossed that finish line, he heard these words- “Well done thy good and faithful servant! Welcome home.”
In our Ojibwa language we have no word for goodbye. Instead we say “Gigawabamin” or simply stated, “See you later.” Sunday and Monday were not goodbye in the truest sense-because I know that one day I will see my friend again. As I touched the coffin one last time, I said to Dick, see you later my friend, see you later….