I had a profound experience recently, but I’ve been quiet about it because it wasn’t my news share. The weeks have now passed, and hopefully hearts are quieting, and I would like to string the words together that have pressed on my heart, waiting to be put on a page.
Let me tell you about a man who loves infinitely, unashamedly, without hesitation or fear. I will not say loved. The past tense is inadequate because although he may have departed this Earth, his love stays as ever-present as all the years he walked among us.
Jim Lankford was the kind of man who made everyone feel special. Every child who ever walked over the threshold of my aunt and uncle’s home was a treasure. I learned to walk at their house. I ran away from a porcupine in their backyard. I spent nights in the warm attic guestroom, roused in the morning by the smell of bacon and an invitation to sit on the kid stool, the one he still called “Darcy’s stool.” I ate candy from the kid-accessible bottom kitchen drawer that seemed to have limitless cookies and such. I stared wide-eyed as Uncle Jim gingerly peeled the skin from a freshly killed rattlesnake, and fried it up. He gave me the rattler. It was pinned to our kitchen bulletin board for years, right next to the quills from the porcupine he expertly plucked from his terrier after she ran towards the critter, when us kids ran away.
Not too long ago I felt compelled to get on an airplane for the cross-continental flight from NYC to PDX. My kindred spirit who is my cousin was putting all her heart and energy into him and I needed to make sure that someone was there to put their heart and energy into her. Hospice had moved a bed into his living room. We were at that point.
I had not been “back home” in five years. It had been five years since I had made the same last minute flight, packing up a small bag and my newborn fourth child to see my dad during his final days. Five years since I had seen my extended family, the aunts, uncles and cousins who enter my thoughts and make my heart ache because I live my life thousands of miles away. A VERY full, enriched, happy life, but one devoid of these crazy folks and their birthday parties, holidays and Sunday porch gatherings. And garage sale-ing. The blood is thick here.
Seeing Uncle Jim has always been enmeshed in hugs, kisses and warm hearts. My dad was at worst emotionally devoid and at best uncomfortable and awkward. Growing up with Uncle Jim’s sweetness towards children and generosity of love was like a rainbow breaking through the perpetual Pacific Northwest grey skies. It was good, and right, and precious to all of us lucky to know it.
I put my head to his heart and felt his arms around me; these last embraces will stay etched within me forever. I held his face, he held mine. We talked and whispered and shared silent moments holding hands. I watched a man make small strides towards whatever is next for us, and did so beaming with as much love as ever. I stood back and observed what dying looks like resting upon the fruits of a life lived with love. It was both heartbreaking and beautiful. He was as precious going out as a newborn coming in.
God gave me a gift to share a tiny bit of that experience with my family. I cooked and shopped, and gave space, while wanting to serve and support my aunt and cousin in every possible way, never leaving their side. But planes must depart. I said my final goodbye, “I hope you know how much you mean to me. To all of us. I’ll be seeing you. I love you.” And I choked back the tears as I darted into the hallway. My neck hurt from stifling what had welled up in my chest.
Chug a lug, Jim. Good Lord, do we love you.