On January 2nd of this year, (2016), my wife's family suffered the loss of a loved one. Glenn was my father-in-law's cousin by marriage, so a bit of a distant relation by blood and today's standards, but they are a closely knit tribe of Swedes, and so the loss echoed through the entire family, near and far.
At first, this funeral at the edge of the prairie was a little awkward for me. It had been a long time since my sinning, pagan carcass had darkened the interior of a church. Also, I was the new guy. Even though my wife and I have been married for over a decade, most of the family members in attendance had never met me. However, the family was warm and welcoming, and I soon began feeling more comfortable with time spent meeting and talking in the back of the church as other family and friends arrived.
I never knew Glenn, but he must have loomed large in his life. This was more than evidenced by the number of guests in attendance, and by the way in which members of the family, the church choir, and even the Pastor paid tribute to him. The man's love and life had obviously touched multitudes.
The service began with Glenn's granddaughter singing a solo, On Eagle's Wings. She sang beautifully, having double majored in Music and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin; ella cantaba como un ángel. Later, Glenn's son-in-law and grandson stood in front of the congregation and reminisced, and told a few of Glenn's jokes. Pretty good jokes, too:
"Why is a fire truck red?"
I don't know.
"Well, they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight makes twelve, and there are twelve inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and there were fish in the seas, and fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always “Russian” around, so that’s why fire trucks are red."
During the funeral service, it became apparent the Pastor had also cared for this man deeply - I believe he choked up once and may have shed a tear. At another point, a choir member leaned forward and looked out at the family. In an incredibly tender moment, she raised her clutched hand to her mouth, eyes over-brimming. Glenn had been a long-time member of this church, and a choir member to boot. The Pastor had enjoyed dinner at his home. The church was simply another extension of his already vastly extended family.
Speaking of an extended family, Glenn and his wife Elaine fostered infants and young children throughout their married life. The number of foster children who passed through their lives over the years tallied up to something over 200. That so many small children, in need of love and care, received it from Glenn and Elaine lends a new meaning to the term "extended family", and speaks volumes about sheer generosity of spirit.
By late in the service, I was feeling very sorry I had missed out on knowing Glenn, and I marveled at his family - how resilient and honestly open they were. I thought of Garrison Keillor, an old hero of mine, and how he, many times over the years, had described the innocence and honesty of these "prairie people", Minnesotans, and here I was among them, witnessing it first hand; I was moved and honored to be included.
So, at first it seemed a little humorous and trite when, at the end of the service, everyone sang "Jesus Loves Me". I had always thought of this as a cute children's hymn, reserved for elementary grades in private schools. But here were these fine, big hearted people, singing it unabashedly and wholeheartedly. It was then that I started to shed tears of my own. Not for the departed, necessarily, but rather for humans, all of us, who can suffer through impossible grief, and still have the courage and strength to stand up and bravely sing songs right at that grief - sing songs right in its gnashing teeth.
Strength on the edge of the prairie. It certainly does exist. I've seen it first hand. And it was a happy occasion after the service when everyone met downstairs in the church hall for ice cream and coffee, because that's what would have made Glenn happy.