My Stepdad, my hero and a funeral

Intro

I love and admire my stepdad. Bradley Thomas (BT) has been a moving force in my life since I was a little boy.

Tall, handsome with the voice of a radio announcer, he always reminded me of the actor Gregory Peck but with blond hair. BT is a crusader for lost causes. He loves helping disadvantaged people, including lonely, energetic little boys.

At three months old he fell down a flight of stairs and became blind, but you would never know it if you saw him move.

BT the man

Being a stepparent is hard, but BT always made it look easy. He was simply my friend. He was always even-handed to me even as a rebellious teenager.

He reminded me, “We both love the same person for different reasons. She is the bridge that holds us together.”

He treated me as an adult even as a little boy, honestly answering any questions I had. This helps me to take on the values of a man I cherished. In my world, he stood for goodness, decency, and common sense.

He was patient with me and explained the value of an education as being able to help the less fortunate and less educated. That in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

BT’s entire life has been about helping other people, especially in the field of the blind.

He has spent years volunteering as an editor on the preparation and publication of a blind magazine called “Dialogue.” He worked tirelessly trying to keep open the Oregon School for the Blind when it closed in 2009.

He helped to invent and improve technology, low vision aids and devices for the blind. His work helping to structure training programs for people coping with vision loss is legendary.

He has counseled and instructed thousands of people that are going blind, letting them know they can live fulfilling lives being visually impaired.

He reminds me of Winston Churchill during World War II. A “Great Man” in a desperate, heroic struggle, acting as a defender of the realm. In his case, it’s not England, but helping people who are going blind. It is something I admire and have tried to emulate.

BT is a piano prodigy with perfect pitch. He has an uncanny ability to name exact notes and chords all from memory and by ear. He can hear any song once and instantly play it. At 72 years old, he is not slowing down.

Writing

BT is the reason I started writing. At 5 years old, he would tell me exciting stories about my super hero alter ego, “Nick Danger.” BT would recount in his radio-ready, deep baritone his weekly installment of how Nick Danger saved the day.

This is heady stuff for a young boy. As a grown man we have breakfast once a week and discuss the state of the world.

I love our lively debates. To me, BT was a bastion of goodness standing up for the less fortunate, and doing something to make a difference in the world. He was never afraid to do the hard jobs no one else wanted to do.

I no longer wanted to be Nick Danger, I wanted to be BT.

Martha

BT’s mother, Martha Haynes Kimbrough, died at 96, quietly, in her daughter’s home in Southern California last week.

Martha was a neat lady. She reminded me of Betty White, quick witted, kind and a pistol.

BT’s family has been in Kentucky for several generations. A devout Baptist, Martha loved singing in the choir. She was in a singing trio that sang at funerals, the pastor at the time nicknamed the group “The Sob Sisters.”

Her funeral was no different. BT played the organ and his sister, Pat led the funeral-goers in chorus. It was a beautiful and memorable event.

Saying Goodbye

When a beloved person dies, people come from all over to say goodbye. Funerals are a sort of sad, solemn celebration of a person’s life.

In the presence of the dead, you feel shame for being alive and in-touch with your own mortality. It is a depressed, serious time of final farewells. Funerals are reminders of the passing of time and our own humanity, a milestone in the calendar of life.

The Visitation and the Funeral are two very different events.

The Visitation

Louisville, KY, July 15, 2015– The small parking lot was full of small, compact, sensible cars. Red Toyotas, Blue Nissans and Gray Fords with handicapped stickers in the windows.

The funeral home was a squat, tan-brick building. It sits on Preston Highway, a main road in Louisville, just around the corner from Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is.

The funeral home was a family dynasty passed from father to son. The grandsons of the founder worked in the background doing the heavy work.

The older attendees were the first to arrive. Some came as singles, others came in pairs over the next few hours. They slowly got out of their cars, sometimes helped by younger family members, as they lined up walkers and canes. They parked close to the entrance to make their walk easier.

As the grievers come in, it was a sort of sad class reunion. Old friends, from long ago, hug and cry. It is a social occasion to mark the passing of a loved one.

The Visitation was a chance to socialize with relatives, neighbors and church members. The atmosphere was festive with memories of a life well-lived.

They came from all over Kentucky. Some family members came as far as Oregon and California. Some of the attendees were as young as 40, but most were closer to their 80’s or older.

This was an elderly crowd, used to attending these events. Their memories were from the 1950’sand early 1960’s.

From the stories you can almost picture a Norman Rockwell painting of a perfect summer. A late Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer: everyone is home from church, they gather at Martha’s house, the creaking of porch swings, the pattering of sprinklers watering fresh cut grass, the tinkling of glasses filled to the brim with too sweet ice tea- the glasses sweating because of the heat, the distant holler of kids playing in the fading summer light, and Martha laughs, enjoying it all.

Saying Goodbye

As they came in Martha was laid out beautifully in her casket, she wore a blue and white dress. She had on her pink glasses. She looked like she had just laid down for a nap.

Some of the grievers paused briefly in front of the coffin to reflect for a minute. Not so much to look, I think, but to say something in finality to her, to themselves.

The Visitation is to celebrate the living, pay respect to the family while fulfilling the sacred duty of saying good-bye to the deceased. Over the next six hours dozens of friends from the old neighborhood stopped by, not out of any social obligation, but out of genuine respect and admiration for Martha.

This was not a burden for the funeral-goers, but a pleasure. Through it all BT shook hands, hugged old friends and regaled people with stories of his mom. Everyone was united, again, through their memories of Martha.

Members of the family sat near the coffin. Downstairs there were tables filled with food and other offerings, all donated by the church in memory of a beloved member.

The family took shifts- taking breaks and greeting mourners. A large easel with a photo display had pictures of Martha at different times in her life. Black and white photos of high school and her wedding all the way through only a few months ago.

As the first few hours pass laughter and tears filled the air with stories of Martha’s life. I can’t help but think this is what she would have wanted and how she wanted to be remembered.

The Funeral

Louisville, KY, July 16, 2015– The Funeral was a much more somber affair. We have come now, not to celebrate Martha’s life, but to mourn her passing. The joy of remembering the day before is gone.

There is a difference of the funerals of young people killed in tragic accidents before their time, and the funerals of people who have died of old age.

Both are dark, somber affairs but they have the same hard lesson: People we love are gone, they aren’t coming back. Funerals are the last eternal sigh of our loved ones and reminders of our own inevitable end.

It was an incredibly difficult, yet powerful ceremony. BT gave an amazing eulogy about a mother’s love for her son. He sang a few bars from the song, “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked” by Larnelle Harris.

As he sang, his voice cracked with emotion at the high notes. For a fleeting moment he was a young boy saying farewell to his beloved mom.

He used the song to evoke a memory of his mom singing the song for her son in the choir. It was his favorite song, she knew it, and sang it for him every Sunday. He closed with the line, “I put that song in my heart, and carried it with me everywhere. I will carry it with me as long as my heart still beats.”

One of BT’s gifts is knowing just what to say at the right time. I know Martha would have been proud. As his son, I was proud.

All too soon we were at the grave site. I was given the honor of being a pallbearer.

As the service ended, everyone filled past casket. Some put their hands on it, some stayed for a few minutes, some bowed their heads, and all said their good-byes to Martha, one final time.

We got in our cars and drove away.