Saying Goodbye

Jen quickly decided she wanted the funeral to be Tuesday. There was no reason to wait, and since so many of Kyle’s friends and family were already in Waco for Homecoming, it would be easier for them to stay a couple of days than to return in the middle of the week. We knew it couldn’t be held at UBC. Our building wouldn’t hold the large numbers of people we were certain would attend. But also, the police had shut down the building to investigate what went awry. We briefly toyed with the idea of holding it in Waco Hall, a large, historic venue on the Baylor campus, but settled instead on the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, which is more easily accessible from I-35.

I knew there would be many wanting a hand in planning the funeral, as well as the many memorials and remembrances that would surely happen in the weeks and months to come. I also knew that any number of ministers– (Waco, being home to the world’s largest Baptist university is full of them)– would be happy and willing to perform the ceremony. More than anything, though, we all wanted Kyle’s funeral to be done well and in a way that was consistent with the content of his belief and approach to faith. Kyle was adamantly against the posturing and bullshit that frequently accompany language about the Christian faith, and which often work their way into funerals. “Kyle is no longer with us because heaven needed another angel,” or “We can’t know why this would happen, but we have to believe God had a plan” were not things he would want uttered at his funeral, even if it would have made some to feel better. So when I suggested to his family that Burt, a local pastor who had become a mentor and friend to Kyle, perform the funeral, and they agreed, my anxiety about the ceremony was lifted.

***

A confession: I elbowed my way into giving a eulogy at the funeral. Up to that point in my life, I had never been comfortable volunteering myself to be in front of a crowd,  speaking on a stage. Don’t get me wrong, I was comfortable being on a stage,  and had come to enjoy it when I had the opportunity. But I always wanted to be asked, and was suspicious of those who actively sought the opportunity. This, however, was different. For reasons that were probably both noble and ignoble, I felt a need to protect Kyle’s legacy. I also, to be vulnerable and frank, felt a need to protect my place within Kyle’s legacy. On top of that, I think I was also trying to protect my place within the life of UBC, which I would not have had if it weren’t for Kyle.  He was the reason I came back to the church after my first Sunday. He was the reason I felt comfortable exploring new ways of talking about and practicing my faith. Though I was a part of the community of UBC independent of Kyle, it never would have been so without him.

At the funeral I spoke about Kyle, the 9 year old boy stuck inside a grown man’s body. I talked about how he would literally tickle me. In public, and at the most inappropriate times, he would take his finger, jab it into my side, and tickle me. I spoke about going to movies with him in the middle of the week, and how he would sneak candy into the theater and act like he was the only person in the world to ever think of doing such a thing. I talked about his extremely inappropriate jokes, and about how after he would tell them he laughed, slapped his knees and said “That boy just said…” and then repeated the joke a second time exactly as he had told it the first time.

When I finished and sat down, Ben, who was on stage with me and the handful of others who were preaching and eulogizing Kyle, put his arms around my shoulder as I looked out at the crowd and wept. I knew what I had just done was the most important thing I would ever do. I gave witness to a life– One of the most beautiful lives that had ever walked into and out of the world.

***

It was later determined that our initial suspicions were correct—Kyle simply reaching out and grabbing the microphone was not what produced the electricity that killed him. Instead, a faultily installed hot water heater was slowly leaking heating element into the water.  He was essentially standing in a pool of ungrounded electrical current. When he reached grabbed the microphone, which was plugged into an electrical socket, he completed the current, sending electricity through his body, damaging all his vital organs in the process.

As is often the case when a traumatic event occurs, eyewitness testimony is spotty and inconsistent. I have had a front row seat to this phenomenon, since I wasn’t in the room when the accident happened and have had to rely on a patchwork of stories from friends and acquaintances to piece together a rough outline of what happened. What I do know is that his last words were some combination of “Help me,” and “Oh, shit!,” and I honestly think he would be elated that I am sharing this bit of information with the world, even though it does nothing to help move my story along.

***

On Monday, the day between Kyle’s death and his funeral, Jamie, Ben’s wife and the UBC office administrator, called to tell me the staff was moving out of the office for a while, and that the church building would soon be closing. Kyle’s Bible and the manuscript for his sermon was still on his desk, and she was wondering if I wanted to grab them before they locked the doors. I picked them up and took them to my house, which was, strangely,  empty and quiet for the only time during the days surrounding Kyle’s death. I sat down and read the text to the sermon he was to give on that Sunday.

Every year in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Kyle would give a series of sermons he titled “God in the Movies,” in which he explored current films through the lens of the Bible and Christian faith. The sermon he was to give on the morning he died was a conversation of sorts between the movie Garden State and Jeremiah 29. The film, about Andrew Largeman, a guy in his mid-20s who returns to his New Jersey home from California to attend his mother’s funeral, explores the concept of place and what it means to live life to the fullest in whatever location you find yourself in. The passage (especially the 11th verse,) though often misunderstood as a message about future hope, is actually about living the life God intends in the present midst of messy and dire situations, specifically from the perspective of exile.

The people of God had found themselves captive to the Babylonians and removed from the Promised Land, and the prophet Jeremiah warned them against the preachers of comfort who claimed God’s blessings would come only after their exile was over. Instead, Jeremiah admonished them that true blessings are always available wherever you happen to be. He instructed them to “Build houses and live in them; to plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare, you will have welfare.”

Kyle never ended his sermons with, “This is what this means, now go do this.” Rather, he presented the passage in a theologically sound, yet creative manner, and wanted each hearer to explore for themselves what in their lives the passage may be speaking to. Most of his sermons ended with his imagining what this might mean for us as a community.

He ended his last sermon with what it might mean for us to “Build houses…plant gardens…and seek the welfare of the city.” I had the honor, alone in my living room, of being the first person (aside from Kyle) to read these words. I showed them to Burt, who shared them at the end of his sermon at Kyle’s funeral, and they have become a mantra, a place to stand for many, breathing life into legions of people around the globe. According to Kyle, here is what it might mean to build houses, to plant gardens and to seek the welfare of the city…

Live. And Live Well.

BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply.

Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.

On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.
If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE.
Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.
If you bike, pedal HARD… and if you crash then crash well.
Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done—a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed.
If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all… because soon he’ll be wiping his own.
If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well.
At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE.

Taste every ounce of flavor.

Taste every ounce of friendship.

Taste every ounce of Life.

Because it is most definitely a Gift.

***

We buried him in Oakwood Cemetery, across the street from a playground, on November 1, 2005.

All Saints Day.

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