I walked away from my conversation with John’s only remaining family, a sister and brother-in-law, wishing I had known him better when he was alive.  But that always happens when I interview a family before attempting to conduct a memorial service or funeral.

John died on a Wednesday.  He was a member of The Special Gathering, a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  An important part of our Melbourne program and a member of the choir, we were often cloistered in the van traveling with the rest of the singers.

Therefore, I probably knew him as well as anyone did, other than his family.  But I realized as I got into my car and sat for a few moments reflecting on John’s life that there was so much more to know about him.  These were important things about his past that had shaped him into the man I admired.

There were vital details that I didn’t know or understand.  John was 84 when he died.  Which means that he was about 74 when I met him.  He was a tall and thin man who always stood straight, proud and erect.  He smiled often but you had to savor his words because he didn’t often share his thoughts with anyone.

John was born and raised on the farm.  All his life, he knew hard, hard work.  Therefore, he was stronger than most men half his age.  He loved to work; but, like many people, he was hesitant to push himself into an unknown situation, concerned that he might make a mistake.

For 65 years, John was a devoted train watcher.  The trains carried coal from the mines of Pennsylvania, running directly through the middle of the farm.  Most of his life, his partner in the fields was his father.  Unwavering, the pair sweated through the heat of the day and pouring rain.   But the men would leave their plow and hoe and straighten up as soon as the rambling or whistle could be heard.  They would take off their hat, pull out a handkerchief and wipe the sweat from their face and neck.  The duo watched every train as the cars ambled or raced through the middle of their crops.

“If Mother caught them, she would scold unmercifully,” his sister reported, but her temper couldn’t keep them from stopping when the next trains rambled past.

After John severely broke his leg at the age of 65, his sister and her husband brought him to Florida.  He lived with them for the next 15 years.  He continued to work, helping with the household chores.  He went to Easter Seals at the Alzheimer’s section.  Though he had not one bit of Alzheimer’s, he delighted in helping to push the wheelchairs of the other more frail members of the troop.

While we don’t ever admit it, there is something wonderful about death, that final passage of life.  Because people stop to remember.  We brace our hoe under their armpit and take off their hats.  Slowly, we wipe our brows and listen and embrace the rambling noise of memories.  And for a brief moment in time, we allow ourselves to rejoice in the past.

Jesus said at the last supper, “Do this to remember me.”  Memory is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The passover is a ritual of remembering.  But somehow we refuse to do it.  Our lives are wrapped tightly in the present and future.  Even our older generations, don’t take the time to remember…or we don’t take the time to listen.

But death abruptly unwraps the cocoons of our present and our future and we come to a screeching halt as the noise of the past slaps us in the face.  The only thing John’s family, friends and I have left are our memories of him.  His quick smile.  The way he said, “I know.”  Consequently, for a few days, we’ll savor and nourish and treasure those memories.  We will remember.

What are the treasured memories you have of your members?  What member would you miss the most?  What memories are you impressing on your family and members?

Last week, I posted the Memorial Sermon that was preached for The Special Gathering membership.  Because most of our members do not have transportation, the family wanted them to be able to celebrate the life of their son, whom they all loved.  This post is what was used for the Memorial service where most of the people were not mentally challenged. 

In Denville, NJ on July 9, 1966 a small premature, baby boy was born. His body was weak. The doctors gave him little chance of stay alive. But as the hours, days and years ticked away until his death 44 years later, Ed ’s exceedingly strong spirit kept him cheerfully whacking at survival.

His medical condition was severe enough that he was the perfect candidate for a double heart and lung transplant. But dual transplants were not allowed at that time. It wasn’t until Eddie was three years old that the double transplant operation was approved. Alas, at three, he was too old to receive the surgery.

Again and again, as his parents battled to keep his health progressing forward, they were told, “He won’t live long. Enjoy the time you have.” But this family refused to allow their young warrior to die without joining his fight. His entire extended family of aunts and uncles and cousin surrounded him with their supportive love. His mother said, “When he reached his eighteenth birthday, I told his doctor that I didn’t want to hear that he was about to die, ever again.”

Scrappy, mischievous, meticulous and bold were character traits that pushed Ed into the forefront of people’s hearts and emotions. Of course, as every family of a warrior will agree, there can be an aggressive side. When his younger brother, David was born, two-year-old Ed must have felt somehow threatened. After a time, he wanted to throw his baby brother out the window. David is thankful that the rest of the family intervened on his behalf.

His mother’s sister, Gail, was Ed’s favorite sitter. “We always knew that our children were loved and welcomed with Aunt Gail,” his mother reported. Of course, it did take several extra eyes and ears to keep track of Eddie as he grew into boyhood. Around the age of ten, Eddie decided to take a trip to the grocery store that was located across a steep ravine at the back of the family’s house. Perhaps he planned a surprise for the family with dessert for dinner by purchasing Oreo’s and 7-Up. The only problem: He neglected to tell anyone where he was going.

After a frantic search of the house and yard, the police were called. His older sister, Danielle, and David scoured the neighborhood haunts; but Ed had vanished. Because of the steep ditch that separated the house from the store, it was thought that Ed could never make the trip to the A&P but someone finally searched the grocery store. Eddie had the Oreo’s and 7-Up in his shopping cart, casually touring the food aisles.

His first girlfriend was Dawn. Together they attended their first prom. Eddie loved a party, anybody’s party. He took over the family celebrations, neighborhood parties and every other festive occasion where he could coax the starring spotlight into his arena.

For many years, he worked for Taco Bell. Customers would come into the restaurant just to see Eddie. They would ask, “Where’s Eddie?” if he wasn’t there. David, his brother, would bring him home from work. David said, “He worked there so long that he smelled like a taco. He was a good worker. When family came into the restaurant, he would acknowledge you but he wouldn’t stop his work to talk.” Later when he worked at McDonald’s in Sebastian, it was the same story. People enjoyed his company and the “regulars” looked forward to visiting with him.

Please understand that fun and games were not the only things that Ed cared about. There was a serious side. He was serious about night shirts, singing, his guitar (which he never actually learned to play), his best friend, John, his girl friend, Irene, and, of course, Halloween. “He planned his costume a year ahead,” his father remembered, with a grin. “He loved to dress up.”

The Bible tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. It’s the picture of a stadium with a cheering crowd watching a sporting event. If Eddie could speak to us now, I think he would want us to know how important it is to have our lives aligned with godly principle found in the scripture. He would emphasize that having a loving and forgiving relationship with the Lord is the most important thing we can do in our lifetime. Of course, in addition to that he would have a message for each of his nephews. To Daniel, “Hey, Meatball.” For Steven, “How are you, Hot Dog?” John would be greeted with “Hello, Banana.” Of course, to his sister, Danielle, he would say, “You are beautiful.”

About seven years ago, after two or three months of a heroic encounter waged against death, Eddie announced to his parents that he wanted to move into a group home. Big Ed said, “We thought it would take months but in a couple of days they found the perfect home for him.” Quality Care Assisted Living is in Port St Lucie and run by Mike and Renee DeRienzo. Committed Christians, this group home was established as a ministry. Here Eddie found HIS home.

“That little fellow wormed his way into all of our hearts,” Mike told me. “He was the one person who seemed to unify our home.”

While active in the Catholic Church from birth, Ed’s parents found a place where his unique sensibilities could shine in a special needs Bible study class when he was a young man. Every week, Ed attended the class and learned about the Lord Jesus. When the Wihlborg’s considered a move to Florida, they wanted to find a location where Eddie could continue to be fed in his faith.

Fortunate for us, they found Special Gathering. By the time I met Eddie, he had become an active part of the Melbourne program. When our Vero program was formed, he was there the first Saturday. Within a few weeks, he was using his singing talents for the Lord. He continued to be an enthusiastic member of the choir for about six years.

What Eddie was missing in vocal excellence, he made up with his wonderful smile and eager, cooperative spirit. I knew that whenever we visited a local church, Ed would represent the Lord, himself and Special Gathering well. He was an ambassador for the Lord within the mentally challenged community, reaching into hearts by sharing his love for his Savior.

Before Ed was put into a coma by the doctors to help him remain calm, he spoke to his mom and dad, “I’m okay,” he said. Ed is now more than okay. He is with the Lord and we can celebrate his life.