We headed out of Torrance in my freshly washed PT Cruiser through the gloomy and rainy first Monday in March toward our destination some 45 miles to the north – the Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall. Karlene, Tara, Zachary and I made good time getting there, especially in lieu of the rain. One thing you can be sure of -- L.A., freeways, and rain are always a bad combination.
We were heading to the funeral memorial service for my brother, Mike. Along for the ride was a larger-than-life framed portrait of my brother that we had made to display during the service. We were also toting a box full of memorial programs filled with a pictorial chronology of Mike’s life. I was concerned that the programs might be overkill, but was thankful that we had created them when we arrived and found out that the funeral home did not make their program after all.
The family was there and we hugged and sobbed and smiled and laughed all at the same time. One thing that I have found in my years of pastoring, funerals tend to bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Fortunately, in this instance, the worst wasn’t very bad and it really turned out to be a wonderful memorial for Michael.
I did the service and found that it was more difficult for me to do than I had even anticipated. As a pastor, I have officiated funerals of various individuals including my Grandparents, uncles, and cousins. However, this was different – this was my brother – and it was certainly more challenging than I thought it would be. Thankfully, my wife Karlene stepped-up and read a letter from Mike’s friend in Canada that lightened the moment and rescued me from my temporary melancholy.
She then opened the microphone for thoughts to be shared from friends and family members. A few of Mike’s associates, whom had worked with him at Panavision, came forward and shared glimpses of him in the workplace and beyond. Then some of the family came forward and shared some of their own memories – most of them humorous and some of them bittersweet. It was a time filled with a mixture of tears and laughter in a combination that is really unique to a good memorial service.My mother closed out the “friends & family” sharing session with her favorite story about her first-born son. I will try to do the story the justice that it deserves.
It was sometime around 1953-1954, which meant my brother was about 3 or 4 years old. My mother had come to pick Michael up from Grandma’s house and she told him to get in the car so they could leave. The family lived in suburban Los Angeles, but back then it wasn’t the sprawl that it would later become (and is today). For whatever reason, (mostly talking with her mother, I believe), Mom took her time getting to the car – a habit that she has faithfully maintained to this day.
When she finally got into the car to leave, she looked in the back seat and there was no Michael. She looked down in the floorboards, but still no Michael. She got out of the car and hollered for him, but still no Michael. Her mother said that there was a house a couple of blocks away that had some ducklings and Michael liked going over there to look at them so she would head off that way to try and find him.
Mom jumped in the car and headed over to Redondo Beach Blvd. There was a Lucky Supermarket down the boulevard where they got their groceries from time to time and she decided to head toward it. Looking intensely for little Michael as she drove, all of a sudden she spotted him walking up the street. Relieved and terrified at the same time, she noticed that there was an old wino following him a short distance back.
Frightened by the man following close behind her son, Mom quickly flipped a u-turn and pulled-up next to the sidewalk and yelled at Michael to get in the car. He didn’t want to get in and looked back at the old bum and motioned for him to come-on. She noticed that the man was carrying something in his arms. Fearing the worst, Mom reached out and grabbed Michael as the old guy approached the car.
“Lady,” said the old wino that looked about like Otis from the Andy Griffith show. “Is that your kid?” he asked in an exasperated voice. “Yes” Mom told him. The wino replied, “Well, he needs a whippin’… You know he made me carry this 6-pack of Pepsi all the way up here from down at the store!”
Mike had gotten tired of the wait and decided to go down to the store by himself. He promptly walked in and picked-up a pack of Pepsi-Cola and walked out of the store. The Pepsi’s were too heavy for him to carry all the way home, so he enlisted the bum that sat out by the market to carry them home for him. That was my brother.
Similar stories were shared by others, memories relived and retold, and the tears and laughter continued. Then I concluded the memorial speaking of the comfort that knowing Jesus provides even in the worst of times and situations. Dad gave the benediction. The memorial service concluded with the Navy Ceremonial Guard who honored Mike’s 10 years of service to the country by presenting the flag to his son, Michael. Ironically, in all those 10 years with the Navy, my brother never was on a boat or ship. The day turned out to be a nice and fitting memorial for my brother.Afterwards, we spent time talking and catching-up with family and friends and then went to dinner with the entire family at the Mimi’s Café in Santa Clarita. It was good to get together. It was good to laugh. It was good to cry. It was good to share. It was good to sigh. It was good just to be there.
The long winter Monday drawing to a close, we said our good-byes, embraced again and then headed each of us toward our homes. It was a long day, indeed. An exhausting day, an emotional day, a challenging day, but it was a good day. It was a day that I shall remember – the day we said good-bye to my brother.