Pieces of Stewart

IMG_3634[1]The following is the text of what I said at my brother’s memorial service.

My siblings and I carry little pieces of Stewart in our hearts and in the way we live our lives. Each of us reflects Stewart in little ways. Today I want to mention some of the ways I see Stewart in my brothers and sister.

First, I want to say something to my mother and father. Dad, Mom, as I went through the papers from Stewart’s apartment, I saw something about you that I didn’t want to go unnoticed or unmentioned. Mixed in with all the other papers were notes from you – words of encouragement, spanning years and years of his life. Every step of the way, you were there for Stewart. In his times of accomplishment – when he graduated from Hamilton, Yale, and Syracuse – and Dad, I know you were especially proud that he passed the New York State bar on the first attempt – and when Stewart encountered difficulties, both of you were faithful and supportive. I don’t say it often enough, but thank you for all you have done and still do.

Donabeth – you and Stewart shared the secret language of Presbyterians. And it is a secret language. You Presbyterians say the word “Session” with a capital “S”. I can hear it when you say it. You and Stewart used words like synod and polity and stated clerk, and you knew what they all meant. The Book of Order, a Presbyterian thing for sure – you know, Stewart had at least 20 of them. And all that General Assembly stuff, you knew about it. I was clueless. Donabeth, the other thing you share with Stewart are the most memories. Being the two oldest, you had the most time together. Things like Stewart doing that dance before he pulled up the stump are memories I have only because of the movie Dad took – you probably remember that moment. Lucky you.

Peter – When Stewart passed away, the mantle of the oldest son passed to you, and you took it on admirably. You handled the phone calls and the arrangements and speaking at the Memorial Service in Pittsburgh so well. Thank you. When I think of the similarities between you and Stewart, I think of his sense of humor. It’s a sharp wit, an educated wit, that makes mathematical jokes or periodic table jokes. I also think of the way your minds both can see numbers as playthings. The tessellation art that you gave each of us for Christmas one year reminds me of that fractal thing Stewart had running on his computer in Jamesville. That was back in the days before everyone had computers. Stewart had a home computer and wrote computer code things back in the ’80s. Stewart also could take the complex and make it seem simple – something a teacher does, something you do, Peter, as you teach and tutor. It’s a gift – and a similarity to Stewart.

Jim – You and Stewart are the bookends. I have always appreciated the symmetry of our family – boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. Stewart was the oldest, and you were the youngest. When we were cleaning out Stewart’s apartment, I found a pile of neatly cut wood blocks in the closet, and they made me think of you. You’ve made some beautiful things out wood: shelves, frames, planters. Stewart was obviously planning his own wood project. It’s that ability to create something tangible, something beautiful, the ability to craft something – you shared that with Stewart. I’m only sorry that the wooden walking stick that Stewart made didn’t make its way back here to you, but all things are transient. We have to hold everything with open hands, even the memories, as Mom reminds us. But we can tell the stories and relive our times with Stewart. You’ve mentioned to me several times about your time spent with Stewart when he moved to Tarentum. What a gift for you to have had that one-on-one time with him! Precious memories of two bookends together.

Me? – Stewart and I shared a love of books. Mary has been going through the boxes of books at our house. “I just love the smell of books,” she said to me one day, because there is something special about that dry papery smell and the feel of old hard-bound books; a Kindle can’t replicate that. Stewart and I also shared a love of new notebooks. When I was a kid, one of my favorite places in all Cooperstown was the back room of Augur’s Bookstore, where the office supplies were hidden away. I loved to go look at the brand new notebooks, clean and unspoiled. There’s something about a new notebook that holds so much promise. As we cleaned out Stewart’s apartment after his death, we found, I daresay, over a hundred legal pads, composition books, steno pads and other notebooks, nearly all with only the first few pages written on. He was always looking for that fresh start – and I can relate to that.

In closing, I found Stewart’s little black notebook that he used for funerals. On one page was written the poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I rewrote it for Stewart.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I’m a ride to the doctor, a helping hand.
I’m the good listener. I understand.

I’m the synod, the session, the stated clerk.
I’m the thing that is funny, the little quirk.
I am wit and pun, fractal, tessellation.
I am homemade chili on family vacation.

When you see and feel the beauty of wood,
Think of me then, and do something good.
I’m a partly used notebook, the words of a hymn.
I’m in Donabeth, Peter, Sally, and Jim.

So do not mourn that I’ve gone afar.
Once again I have passed the bar.

Ash Wednesday

It was an ominous way to begin Lent.

An early morning phone call let me know that my oldest brother, Stewart, had passed away from a heart attack.

And I stood in the kitchen, and I stared at the wall
And I prayed for some wisdom, so I could make a little sense of it all.
And I thought about the seasons, and how quickly they pass
Now there’s little to do but hope that the good ones will last…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

I stood in the kitchen this morning, but I didn’t stare at the wall. I left the lights off and stood at the window, waiting for the sunrise.

Some sunrises are so spectacular with bursts of color lighting my horizon. I could have written, then, about how God spoke to me in the richness of the dawn, in the vast of array of pinks and golds and purples and oranges.

But He gave me an unassuming dawn, black to deep blue to gray. Gray. Non-descript.

I felt dull, like the sunrise.

My eyes filled with tears and I can’t even tell you why.

Stewart called me for my birthday, but I wasn’t home. He said he would call back, but he never did.

I had thought about it. I should call him, I thought, but I never picked up the phone.

And it’s easy enough to say, “He’s better off,
Chalk it up to the luck of the draw,
Life is tough, it was his time to go,
That’s all.”
Well, I don’t know about that…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

Life is so short.  Just yesterday, I had been looking at Isaiah 40 —

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.

I had thought about the Tenebrae services a woman at Laity Lodge had described to me, with candles being extinguished one by one until the church was in total darkness. I had been thinking about the breath of the Lord, withering the grass, blowing out the candles, one by one.

Our world is dark and sad.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, in the darkness and sadness of a broken world. Surely the people are grass. Surely Stewart is grass. Surely I am grass.

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
but the word of our Lord will stand forever.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, too.

Beyond this grassy withered world, there is eternity. And it is filled with hope.

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