Farewell and Godspeed, Ray
If I know what something means to me, if I have already come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems a twice-told tale. (Arthur Miller)
You may already know that friend Ray’s ringtone on my smartphone was a duck quacking. The sound was amusing, annoying and distinctive, which was the point. Of late my old buddy called twice daily, but in his prime he dialed my number eight to ten times. He respected the night hours, but had a knack for interrupting wife Kathy and me when we were having a good chat or playing with the grandsons.
As our relationship unfolded, I grew accustomed to ignoring quacks during conversations and meals. Ray knew I would return his call, and I always did.
The arrangement held up until Saturday, January 16, 2021. My phone shows missed calls at 10:37 a.m. and 1:05 p.m. Then time got away from me and I never did get back to him.
Never, indeed. Ray died that very evening. The coroner said he was dead before he hit the bathroom floor—likely a heart attack, but no autopsy was performed. Ray was of little account. He would have said so himself, which is not to say that he was ignored. Friends and family tried mightily to meet daily needs and protect his resources. I was one of the team.
Maybe guilt should bear down on me, failing Ray as I did on his last day. But as I’ve seen all manner of passings, I refuse to beat myself up. A wife dies before her husband arrives at the ICU to say goodbye. A great-grandfather goes to sleep with ears full of three generations’ affection. During the pandemic that bombed 2020 and persists still, masked and shielded nurses do their best to substitute for family and friends. And I won’t even get into causes of death, with their many spasms and indignities.
After three score and four years of war in which the enemy was usually himself, Ray caught a break. He called me at 1:05 p.m., had a visitor sometime thereafter and departed by 8:00 p.m. He got what most people say they want: to go in their sleep or at least without long suffering.
As I rummage through what the absence of Ray’s quacking means to me—the abrupt termination of a friendship based on two men nurturing a deep connection as one cared for the other—regret presses on my chest like a cinderblock.
Day by day, year after weary year, Ray got a bad deal. Relentless mental illness and a fundamentalist Christian upbringing posted one guard on each shoulder, both promising hellfire. His beliefs were simplistic. He told me and others to ask that the Lord would help him find his dentures or that a smoke shop owner would give him a good deal on a humidor.
Heavens, how the man howled at his God, how he argued, negotiated and pleaded. Made visible, his prayers would have been a country stop sign pockmarked with bullet holes. A man never lived who was more thirsty for peace. His cup might runneth over in the morning, but by noon he would be parched again.
True, my thoughts of Ray will often be oppressed by shadows, but there is light to redeem his blessed memory. This redemption comes by way of belief, not from any specific Christian teaching, but in what happens as I sit alone and lay down the burdens of this lovely, but absurd, world.
In the quiet, I breathe in and out and sense a grace beyond description, bruised by a legion of human assault but half-smiling still. With the ear of my heart I hear, “I am.” Other proclamations I generally ignore as embellishment or babble.
Inside this holy listening, the notion that Ray’s one and only existence would be so strangled by misery is too much to bear. “There must be more for Ray,” I think, not as prayer but as statement. “He deserves a joyful sojourn, a tearless mountain.”
This is my tale, soon twice-told. Whatever made Ray a person has not been lost—merciful silence has written this conviction within me.
It’s almost laughable that I’m in Ray’s debt, this man who looked every bit a vagrant. I’m his advocate. And if by cruel chance we walked together so that my hope in eternity would not suffocate, I trust that his present bliss is as breathtaking as his sacrifice.