Today is the first day of the rest of our lives… without Jason.
I don’t know what it was like in Missouri– but here it couldn’t have been scripted better… howling, raging winds with rain that slashed at the window of my office. Hail even. Winds that rattled the glass. And then a sudden bright blue sky with thick, fluffy pure-white clouds. Sunbeams.
I don’t remember meeting Jason. I know it was at Lake Louise United Methodist Camp. I know the month and the year– but I don’t remember not knowing him there. Jason’s gift was in knowing you — the real you– not the bullshit, high school facaded you– but the real you– instantly. That in itself was remarkable– but it was what he did with that knowledge that made it extraordinary. He held you to that true you– and expected that you would then reach the potential you were capable of.
I’ve spent the last 30 years living in the shadow of those expectations– and running to spiritually, rationally, and sarcastically catch up.
There was a tradition, in our years at Lake Louise, at the end of each camp week. The entire camp– kids and counselors– would form a long, thin loop that snaked out along the prayer trail near the big chapel. You’d face the person opposite you in the loop, hold their hands, look into their eyes, and sing a simple song.
Shalom, my friend, shalom, my friend, shalom, shalom.
God’s peace be with you ’til we meet again, shalom, shalom.
It was the goodbye at the end of the week. It was a brilliant practice–It kept the goodbyes moving.(If we’d been left to our own devices I’m pretty sure that we would STILL be standing there, today, saying the goodbyes of one of those weeks.) You saw every single other person at camp– so no one was left out– the shy kid was given the same treatment as the popular kids. Jason was a popular kid. But the kind of popular kid that made the shy kids feel on equal footing. I stood next to him one year in the long loop of Shaloms– and I remember him kidding me the whole way through because I was sobbing by the second Shalom. And there was a lot of shaloms yet to go.
The Shalom goodbye was important. If you’ve been to camp full of hormonal, emotional teenagers you can picture the teary farewells at the end of a week. Now add in that Lake Louise, for most of us, is still one of the very thinnest places we know. Where the space between us and the presence of God is a hair width. At the end of a Lake Louise week we were at our most vulnerable– and our most safest. We’d torn down our usual walls and edifices and facades that marked our daily survival– and uncovered and exposed our truest selves. The Shalom circle wasn’t just about saying goodbye to our friends– but goodbye to that thinnest, safest place– and knowing that within hours we would start acquiring the necessary layers to survive in a thicker, unkinder world.
Even if my last Jason moment had been in a Shalom circle nearly 30 years ago– that would have carried across the decades to feeling the loss of him now. But it wasn’t. Our little knot of friends somehow managed– in an era before facebook and texting– to stubbornly stay together. In the early years it was on the land line phones in our parents’ kitchens– curling the long cords while talking in short bursts after 10:30 when the rates were cheap. The phone calls were short because there was a group to organize and, in the days before conference calling and group texting, it was an orchestration in itself to get the news out to the dozen or so of us of which church to meet at on Sunday– or Litchfield basketball game– or a pool party– so we could all be together
Later, of course–technology made it easier to coordinate and find each other. Years had slipped by before I saw Jason at his mother’s funeral. But there wasn’t any distance. We were all older. With different trappings. New families. And if we’d been distracted by those things it might have been awkward to have met again with so many years in between– but we recognized not the facades but the true selves.
Jason’s cancer (appropriately complicated and high-maintenanced) gave us the excuse to dream about a trip together– all of us with our spouses and children– to go back to Lake Louise. I’m chagrinned that we never made the trip– but oh! the planning of it was marvelous. After a while it was enough to just get some of us in the same room and for an hour or two to remember who we really are.
I grieve for Jason’s family– his impossibly poised sister, Jennifer, and her husband, Dave. His wife, Trish, and his daughters, Mandy and Alex. His Dad. But it’s Alex I keep thinking about. Because Alex is about the age I was when I first knew Jason. I hope that she meets some extraordinary, marvelous, brilliant boy that she will know her whole life long. Who, like her Dad, will have a completely inappropriate sense of humor that makes his genius a lot easier to swallow (Oh, what Jason would do with that line!).
Jason’s sense of self was sure enough to make the rest of us easier in our own skins. Arguing with him about prayers and miracles and God is one of my favorite phone calls ever– walking in circles around my office area while we kept up a lively debate. Reading one of his books in prepublication will always be one of the most privileged things I’ve ever done. Any spiritual growth I’ve shown in the last 30 years is partially on him. That I work with the youth in our church is partially his fault, too.
Today is just the first day of the rest of our lives without Jason. I don’t know how to do this yet. It’s inconvenient that one of the few people that could show us how to do this is the one that has left us to do it without him. (He’d be all over that I said “do it.”)
Shalom, dearest boy. Shalom. God’s peace be with you ’til we meet again.