I came around the door, re-entering my office to gather a few things before departing for the day, and then she looked up at me, eyes confused, hands shaking, “Bo Bandy passed away.” She sat down, tears rolling down her cheeks, mascara smudging. Death had re-entered the building.
My mom just dropped a bombshell. A life had come to an end, but not just any life, one that was intimately linked to my dead fathers; in a way, another piece of my dad passed away with the words, “Bo Bandy passed away” making it doubly painful. Of course, my father’s own body has been dead going on 4 years now, but Bo was another body, once here, now gone, that shared space with my father while he was living. To lose him, was to also lose more of my dad. It was to close further the chapters of my father’s story. They were landmarks that pointed to one another. They were best friends, partners in crime, churchmen of an era slowly ending.
To say Bo Bandy was a good man, would be to say too little. To describe men like Bo with hyperbole is a difficult thing to accomplish.
When my family and I moved to Cleveland, TN in 1989, it was Bo, and his wife Janet, that became my parents first real friends. For Yankee transplants in need of southern hospitality, the Bandy’s provided it. My parents and the Bandy’s became close friends, sharing meals, golf outings, regular Sunday worship, and even becoming the godparents of my sister and I. Fortunately for the Bandy’s, they were never stuck with the unpleasant task of having to raise us. But fortunately for our family, the intimate connection fostered in the early 1990’s with the Bandy’s proved to be an untold blessing for us all.
As the years moved on, Bo would become my junior high Sunday School teacher, church softball coach, district golf organizer, and fellow Work and Witness partner. He and his family would share in the joys of college graduations and in the births of all the babies my wife and I brought into the world.
He was never liberal with his words of praise, as those who know him could testify, but he was always quick to offer an encouraging word of affirmation when I was a young preacher, learning to sharpen my otherwise dull skills. He was quite picky, so if Bo said it was good, he meant it. Eventually he would become my student, sitting in my Sunday School class. He was always engaged, asking good questions and on occasion finding me in the parking lot asking a question that would send me quickly toward an Anchor Bible Dictionary in search of answers. For years, we sat behind he and his wife at church, and he would always ask about our boys and give them a “hard time” as only Bo could. Of course, the children were never as amused as Bo was, but that was his way of loving them, and loving us.
One of the more poignant memories I have of Bo is as a child growing up in church. For those that did not know him well, his sarcasm or humor might not be warmly accepted. He could give the appearance of a rough exterior, but it was merely an appearance because underneath lay a man that was sensitive to others and sensitive to God. Bo was a man that invested his life where it mattered: into his church, his family, and others, and felt it all deeply.
After learning of his passing, I got out my dad’s journal from the Ecuador Mission trip we took together in 1994. I was 13 at the time. My dad recalls a time at lunch, when we were all eating chips and sandwiches, and tossing our crumbs to a population of stray dogs wandering about the streets. There, my father noticed a lady, a beggar, that had difficulty with her mobility. She was clearly impoverished and visibly frustrated at the scene.
Upon pointing this out Bo, he went and made a plate of food and gave it to her. It is clear from the journal entry that my dad wasn’t attempting passive aggressive persuasion upon Bo; it was merely a matter of fact being noted. Yet, Bo moved in a simple act of kindness. Considering this scene my father wrote, “I was impressed with Beau and I only wish I had done it first, for how much more value does a human have in the eyes of God than dogs running around on the streets.” Time would fail me to list the many thankless, and unheard of, acts of kindness Bo Bandy has done through the years.
I trust Jesus was speaking literally when he said, “God will reward those that do in secret.” He and my father shared this in common; they would often do for others in secret and never seek outward gain or praise.
Conjoined with his works (public and private) was his verbal testimony, one that made a strong impression on a young boy named Nathan sitting in a church pew.
I grew up in the Nazarene Church, the largest remnant of the 19th century holiness revivals that once swept this nation. One of the hallmarks of the tradition was the ability for congregants to freely express, and respond, to whatever they felt God leading them to express/do/say. It was not a Quakerish sort of setting. There was certainly an order to worship, but it did have a hint of Pentecostal expressionism in regard to congregational response to a movement of the Holy Spirit.
During worship it was not uncommon for people to get “blessed,” stand up, and testify about what God was doing in their lives. Usually this would happen after a song, or before the sermon, or after altar calls; ostensibly it could happen at any point in the service. I have been in many services that were filled with testimonials and times of prayer at the expense of any sermonizing.
On such occasions, it was not uncommon to see Bo Bandy stand up, beside his wife, and in the presence of us all bear witness to how good God had been to him. He would talk about how God had brought him through struggles, how God had protected and provided for his family, how God had given him peace, and allowed him to live a life far above what he deserved…and his testimony would often be accompanied with weeping. Life wasn’t always perfect for Bo, but it was joyful in Christ. Here was this strong, firm, pillar of our church, also being vulnerable in front of all of us and expressing his love and thankfulness for God. I have heard Bo testify many times; it was testimonies like his that made it easier for young men like myself to be open and receptive to the subtle workings of the Holy Spirit.
Though I do not know what happens when we die, a journey we will all take alone, I do know the one who holds death. To God, I give thanks for the life of Bo Bandy, who was obedient and loved God with his time, his words, his work, his means, and his devotion to his family.
When I recall the famous Great Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11, Beau Bandy will now be among the throng.
Naturally, having heard the news of his passing fall upon my hearing, I was speechless. What is there to say? Words fall powerless in the face of death. It is better to be silent than to speak foolishly. All I could do was watch as my mom went through the motions of the phone call with Janet, Bo’s wife, and shake her head trying to grasp the then, and not now, that had just taken place.
Death is a difficult thing to comprehend, to let roll over you and under you, and then attempt to remain standing. The mind cannot keep up with the sudden shift in the world: the was, but not now, that has just taken place. It takes the mind, and heart, a while to catch up to reality.
After the phone call, gravity silently pressing us into our seats, we went over to the family’s home. As we pulled in the driveway, multiple cars lined the asphalt surface; death was near, and people had shown up as witnesses. I stepped out of my vehicle, let out a blast of air from deep within my lungs, a large sigh, and exhale, and watched as the mist quickly formed before my sight, then vanishing.
Here we are; It is February. Winter is not yet over.
My mother exits her vehicle and walks to the top of the semi-circle drive. I meet her and look at the front door. It is open, with the clear glass door being all that separates us from the shadowy figures of humans on the inside. I turn back around to discover my mother no longer standing. Grief was bludgeoning her. There, she was squatting near the earth, weeping. This is real. Death happened. Invisible pain cripples even the strongest human. Bo is dead, and with him, my father continues his death as well. We make our way through the door and hug those inside, a confirmation the world is not the same place.
I entered the home speechless. Am I really doing this again? In February? I hug his grandchildren, children, and wife. I embrace BJ. What a familiar embrace with this one, this friend with whom I have bellowed the ache of loss and walked the valley of the shadow of death. His arms are too familiar, though they are still comforting.
I embrace Selina. She weeps. The love of a daughter makes the loss of her father a terrible thing to live. She tells me what happened, how a seemingly normal, albeit rough evening and day, turned into a rupture of her world that a few hours ago was seamlessly intact. She speaks to make sense of it all, even as she knows the more she speaks the less sense it makes. There is no use in second guessing our actions. Death was near; it would not be denied. Even as we pick our loved ones off the floor its shadow is cast over the story of our life.
I embrace Janet. What can you say? She has always given the best hugs, even now, when she has suffered the loss of a husband that is hours fresh. Even now I think I am hugging her, but she is hugging me. She is the salt of the earth. What courage! What strength! The world does not produce many women like Janet Bandy anymore.
I tell her I love her; for the first time I beat her to that punch line. She has been like a mother to me throughout my life, speaking life into me even when I didn’t deserve it and believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And now she stands staring into the abyss, peering into the darkness of what lies on the other side of Bo’s absence. Death leads us into dark forests, with steel canopies, air tight pathways through which our feet grope for footing. I am reassured, however, that the forest may be no match for Janet; perhaps the canopies will part as Moses parted the Sea, allowing light to shine onto an otherwise darkened floor. I trust it is so.
But now the countdown has begun. If you have not incarnated death, perhaps you do not know what I mean. If you do, I am sorry you suffer this tragic time keeping.
From the moment Bo passed, until the moment “healing” happens (if ever), tragedy is the keeper of time. As I embraced the family, and spoke with Selina and Janet, I was reminded of what it is they will face tonight, and tomorrow, the day of the funeral, and the weeks/months after.
There is no night like the first night one has experienced death.
I do not mean merely heard of death or been told of death.
I mean there is no night like the one when your bones have been filled with it, soaked with death so that whether we sleep, or lie awake, or move, death is with us. It stains our pillow, is found in our footprints, its residue left on our coffee cups. There is no sleep once death saturates us; it keeps us up at night, the child pulling at our covers until we sit up and take notice. For me, not only was it me, with me, in me, beside me, but it brought a certain chill over my body that kept me cold for over a year, the coolness of the grave finding expression in my body.
If this were not enough, time is no longer linear; it is event oriented. The calendar no longer matters. What matters is 4 hours, 5 hours, 24 hours, 2 days, 3 days, 1 week, 1 month, 4 months, 1 year, etc., since he has died.
We mark time like this because it simultaneously keeps us CLOSE to the event, close to a time when they were here, but also teaches us that we are moving further and further from the moment when that moment existed. We cannot help it. We do not want to be consumed with this record keeping, this death clock, but once it starts it cannot stop until we are dead. Like Captain Hook, we may arrive at a place where the “tick tock” is less salient, but there is always already a death clock that slowly moves toward our own once we have lived death.
February, the wintriest of months, has tightened its grip, extending toward us a winter of the soul.
It is easy to look around, and see the barren limbs, the dry grass, the muddied waters of rivers saturated with winter rain and snowmelt. It is easy to become lost in winter.
I remember clearly that cold March afternoon, after my father’s own February death, standing alongside the hole carved out of the earth’s crust, the gusts of wind swirling about the hillside and making the ribbons on my father’s casket come to life in betrayal of what was just under the lid. Gathering on a hill, digging a hole, and along with the creation that went into hibernation months ago, we cast another loved one into the earths crust, a seed we hope will find life again one day. I know the trees will one day bloom, but will my loved one not remain dead?
The 21-gun salute. It is over. The doves fly away. The wind of winter, not yet finished, casts us off the hill.
There, in winter, we stood on the precipice with death. Today, we stand again on that same precipice. When will winter end?
The story is over…
Yet, it is not over. We will step outside after Bo’s funeral today and we will see the clouds moving, we will feel the warm sun beating upon our foreheads, and we will hear the birds sing. It will all continue to live. The earth will continue its march around the sun and seasons will change. There is a season for everything, says the writer of Ecclesiastes. We will feel the hard asphalt beneath our feet and we will feel the warm embrace of others. Everything is not dead; death does not have the final say.
All endings are opportunities for beginnings.
Of course, like a good book, the kind that sticks to our hands like tree sap when we were kids, we hate for the story to end. It comes to its conclusion, we sit there in silence, not wanting to close it. “Is that really the end,” we say to ourselves, not wanting the finality of closing the book, sealing those pages. “Such a good book,” we say. It truly sucks that its over.
That’s because the story isn’t just in those pages; the story becomes us. We hate that it ended, but oh man, we loved that story. It was so good! And now we want others to read it too!
We are the story. People like Bo represent the best stories of our lives, the ones that we were reading, and we thought would never end. The story is filled with love, joy, laughter, victories, losses, and pain. This story shapes us. The story provides us with the images that tell us who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We not only read the story with others, but we are the story, and the story is us. Their story is our story. But like every good story it is only a completed story once its bittersweet ending has been written.
I must confess I hate when a good book ends; It feels like winter.
Today, the story that was written with Bo will be closed. The part of the story that he and my father shared will grow fainter once the casket is closed for the final time. Today is going to feel like February; Winter is not yet over. There is no comfort in closing a good book knowing you can never read it again for the first time.
Yet, I know what I will be looking for when I leave the church.
I will pay my respects. I will weep tears of sadness for this one who has known me since I was 8 years old. I will weep with his family that has to suffer the long sleepless nights and live the drudgery of footsteps gripped by death. I will thank God for his life and for my small part in it. I will offer my ears and my hands to his family if they can be of any use in the weeks and months ahead.
Then…I will leave.
I will step out of the same church doors through which Bo and my father stepped many times. Only this time, I will be looking with the eyes of my grandmother, who though now deceased many years, knew that when she saw Robins, spring was near.
Where might a few Robins be? I think I hear their song.