Saturday, April 13, 2024

Wednesday Evenings with Gary

Gary’s obituary calls him a “renaissance man,” and I couldn’t think of a better description for that smart, funny, eclectic, and entirely odd and quirky 85-year-old friend of mine.

Gary was a brilliant painter, musician, scientist, arborist, cook, gardener, and part-time philosopher. He worked for many years in the chemistry department at Cornell and, together with his wife of nearly 61 years, Florence, built a beautiful home in the forest all by hand, all by themselves. They filled that home with violins that Gary built and/or refurbished and brilliant paintings of local waterfalls and scenery that he meticulously created, surrounded it with gardens that they both cared for, and filled it with a family that they loved dearly.

I’ve known Florence and Gary almost my whole life, as family friends and as part of the same church fellowship. And for many years now, I’ve lived in the same town as them and have been meeting with them on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. On Sundays we usually have a larger group, but for our Wednesday evening Bible studies it’s usually just a few of us—sometimes four, often three, and not too rarely just me and Gary; Florence has been quite ill for years and not often able to participate in our time together much anymore, so she just listens in from her bed when she’s able.

My Wednesday evenings with Gary have been such a treat, and there’s something special I’ve really come to appreciate about the times when it was just him and me together studying a chapter. He had a very active, imaginative, and creative mind, yet got so simple and so sincere when he spoke about things spiritual. No matter what story we read or what topic we studied, Gary would often find a way to bring it back to the basics: childlike love and having a good spirit.

Gary loved Galatians 5 and the bits about the characteristics of the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience (or longsuffering / forbearance), kindness, generosity (or goodness), faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (or temperance)—those qualities that come when God’s spirit is in control in someone’s life, overruling the less desirable qualities of our human nature. Gary would bring it back to those nine simple things again and again, often looking for those key themes in any chapter we were reading to try to identify what he felt he should be focusing on. He would often say that he thought about these “fruits,” as he called them, not because he felt he had them all, but because he knew he needed more of each.

Gary also loved Matthew 5, 6, and 7, which is where Jesus gave the famous sermon on the mount. He would often say that “if that’s the only part of scripture we have, it’s all we need.” And that’s so true. He’d talk about how often Jesus used the example of children and the importance of having a childlike trust and a childlike love. It wasn’t uncommon for Gary to tear up, genuinely so sincere and forthright, when he’d talk about this. He was honest in his deep desire to simplify his love and increase his trust.

Gary had plenty of opinions, ideas, and idiosyncrasies, and I think it’s safe to say that he—just like any of us who are indeed very human—wasn’t entirely perfect. But the Gary I got to know and love, especially the last few years as he cared for Florence after her strokes and through her growing dementia and expanding need for outside caregivers, became increasingly soft, gentle, loving, and caring. For a long, long time before Florence got sick, Gary would sleep outside in a tree house. It was just one of the odd things that made him special. But, since her needs increased, he did something he didn’t like to do—sleep indoors—and he did it willingly because he knew that’s where he was needed. I think that speaks volumes about who Gary was, deep in his heart.

This past Wednesday, I was on my way out the door to head to Gary’s for our regular Wednesday evening study when I got a call that they had just found Gary sitting in his favorite chair, lifeless. I had been texting with Gary earlier that morning and all seemed well, and his son had checked on him in the early afternoon and Gary was joking around and in good spirits. But, between shifts of Florence’s caregivers, Gary must have sat down in his chair and, just like that, checked out. What a way to go!

Gary’s funeral is Tuesday. Hopefully that gathering of friends and family will be an honor to the good buddy many of us had in that odd, quirky, wonderful old man. Then Wednesday will come the next day, and it’ll be different. I’m sure that, wherever Wednesday evenings find me from now on, Gary’s memory will be ever present.

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