Tommy Bass and I had driven down from Atlanta feeling very sad for Russell, seeing only the marriage he would never have, the opportunities he would miss. But this was not the message of rabbi (and blogger) Kurt Stone (left). His body just gave out, he said. What man supposes, God disposes.
Russell's family saw him as brilliant and gifted, wanting only to make his mother and sisters and cousins proud of him. They were, always.
But I knew he was also troubled. He could be crude, and judgmental. He was slovenly, and unkempt. He worried a lot, about money and getting work. He was needy, sometimes superficial. He wrote knowingly of things he'd just been told, then argued as though his were the final word. He could be exasperating.
There was a general feeling of unworthiness to him, a neediness, as though he had to buy love. My wife asked me once what I saw in him. Well, he was loyal and kind-hearted, he always tried hard, he was what I might have been without her. He was like the mutt you might leave staked-out in the rain, who would always bark and wag at your approach, until you realized he was better than those purebreds, inside. He wanted it more.
After Russell moved to Portland, in the late 1990s, he often flew Tommy (right) from his home in Americus, Georgia, just to work on his computer or home network. He would take Tommy to restaurants, give him gifts. Tommy was gracious, and we should treat all our disabled war heroes as well. But it was unnecessary. In exchange Tommy sought to minister to him. When he could not change him, Tommy accepted him.
Preachers would say Ellen healed Russell, poets that she completed him. His family certainly noticed the difference, and it was this they wanted to talk about after the service. In the last year he even came back to his faith, they said. Rabbi Stone and his editors agreed his writing improved, it became more direct. My cruel joke was Mrs. Shaw "lost a son, but gained a daughter." Ellen was treated more as a widow and long-time family member than a fiancee or final girlfriend. She brought gifts.
I found the whole scene eerie, and tried to make light of it. I don't do tears well. I prefer jokes, and laughter, in the face of fear. But I was touched. Though I had never met Russell's family, and hadn't even known he was Jewish, they recognized me immediately, from the pictures on my blogs. They came up to me before Tommy, who had known him longer and better, who treated him with far more kindness. They asked about my kids. They said Russell talked of me often, with fondness and pride. I was humbled, but left smiling.
One of my nastiest jokes was about the service taking place on Easter Sunday. "If he comes out of that casket I'm not worshiping that garbanzo for the rest of eternity." But I realized as we headed back home he had in fact been resurrected, over the last year, in all the ways that matter.
That question I posed at the top. It wasn't a question. It's just the way God deals the cards to us sometimes. Many of us never find happiness, or know any peace. Russell did. These are tidings of great joy.
As we drove north through the Florida swamps, a great cloud appeared on my left, in the formation of a mountain, backlit by the Sun. "See how Russell brought his mountains here to Florida?" I asked Tommy, as I snapped a picture. "It's an Easter miracle."