God brings death and God brings life, brings down to the grave and raises up. God brings poverty and God brings wealth; he lowers, he also lifts up. He puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, Restoring dignity and respect to their lives— a place in the sun! ~ 1 Sam 2:6-8 (MSG)
“Freddie White died,” my mother broke the news to my father as soon as he got home from work.
“Freddie White?” Dad sat heavy in his chair as the news sunk in. “How? When?”
“A few days ago, at age 48. The obituary didn’t say how. The wake’s tomorrow night.”
Dad bent to take off his concrete-encrusted work boots. “I should go. He didn’t have much family.”
Freddie White was one of my father’s “men.” That’s what he called his crew of irregular mason tenders and bricklayers, many of them recovering (or wannabe recovering) alcoholics and drug users. Dad had picked them up, here and there, during the decades of his own sobriety and membership in AA. Referring to them as “men” was a sign of respect.
Part of his personal sponsorship style included giving them work now and again. He often had more men than he had work. It had been a few years since Dad had seen Freddie. Perhaps that’s why he wondered aloud, “Maybe if I’d stayed in touch . . .”
The next night, on his way out to the funeral parlor, Dad said to Mom, “I might be a while. A lot of the old crew will be there. It’ll be good to see them . . . even under these circumstances.”
When my father came home from the wake, he had a story to tell. “I couldn’t believe it. The place was packed. The line to the casket was out the door.”
“You’re kidding?” Mom looked surprised. “Who all was there?”
“I didn’t see a familiar face,” Dad said. “This crowd was different.”
“No guys stuffed into borrowed sports jackets two sizes too small?
“Nope,” Dad said.
“How about men wearing neckties which stopped six inches above their belt buckle?”
“None,” Dad answered. “Another thing, I shook hands with a lot of people and didn’t find a bloodied knuckle in the bunch.”
“It sounds like Freddie had some fancy new friends,” Mom said.
“You might say that. While the line wound its way toward the casket, I overheard some of the others talking about Fred’s brand new forty-foot power boat and how sad it was that he never got to take it out.”
Mom shook her head to make sure she heard right. “A what?”
Dad continued. “All I could think was, ‘Wow. Freddie White died owning a forty-foot boat.’ By the time I reached the casket, I was in shock.”
“Why? Was it a fancy coffin?”
“No, I was in shock because the guy lying in it wasn’t Freddie!” My father started to laugh and couldn’t stop. “The man’s name was Frederick White. You got that part right, but he was 84, not 48. And he was a Mason as in Freemason, not a mason as in laborer.”
Mom’s hands flew to her face. “Oh, no! What did you do?”
“What could I do? I was only a few feet from the family. I couldn’t very well leave without paying my respects. I took his wife’s hand in mine, looked into her tear-filled eyes and said the only thing I could about her husband, “It’s a real shame about the boat.”
True story (even with some literary embellishment). And it has a moral: Don’t leave this earth without paying your respects to someone: the down-and-outers, the up-and-comers, the in-crowd, the outcasts, the young, the old, the hurting and the healthy. Before it’s too late.
It won’t kill you. I promise.
Note: In case you’re wondering, after Dad’s funeral parlor faux pas, he did connect with the real Freddie White. He was sober and doing well–although not well enough to buy a boat.