When I was a child in the tiny village of Blaine Lake in northern Saskatchewan, the sexton of the Catholic church always rang the church bell to announce a death in the parish. The chimes came slowly, once for every year the person had lived. We children stopped our play to count the peals. A few, a child; many, an old person. Poet John Donne (1573-1631)writes in one of his sermons, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
On Memorial Day my daughter Susan, son James, wife Kathy and daughter Jennifer and I stood around my husband’s grave to remember his short life. The bell tolled for him in 1962 in Kansas at age 44.
Walter and I met in 1945 when we were both attending Bible college in Winnipeg, I a naïeve 22-year-old and he a more mature 28-year-old , just released from 4½ years in alternative service.
He had two goals: to get an education and a wife. We were married two years later, and he began chasing his dream: B.Th., B.A., M.A. all the while supporting the family as a public school teacher, finish carpenter, school teacher, pastor.
He quickly rose to the top in whatever he did: Valedictorian and student president at college. He made friends easily. His ordination to the ministry in 1953 meant a great deal to him, a much-valued acknowledgment of his spiritual and leadership gifts.
He loved books. He loved learning new things. A classmate wrote after Walter’s death about a college Zoology class both were taking in Waterloo, Ont. about 1960: “Walter had the habit of talking along to himself when the professor was lecturing. He had had some science before so this material was not entirely unfamiliar. He would say, ‘Yes, I see that.’ Or ‘So this would be this way’ or ‘Then it would go there’ .... always indicating he was following exactly what the prof was saying..... It didn’t take long and the prof was only lecturing to one person; the rest of the class was practically nonexistent.... I’ve never had that experience anywhere else. He was a real inspiration to me though it showed me up as a student.”
In 1958, Walter became ill for the first time. We didn’t think it was serious, but it was, and in 1962, after several surgeries, a brief seven weeks after having moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, he died of what in lay terms is known as “jelly belly.” I have written about his death and the life that followed for us as a family in my book Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy (Tyndale, 1975).
At this simple memorial, I read a poem by daughter Christine, who died in 2000 at age 45, which she wrote about her father’s death at age seven.
I clomp down the stairs in Daddy’s shoes.
Mother gives me some death words.
They don’t fit anyway.
Take them back, mother.
Relatives fly to our home like black birds.
Curled in uncle’s lap I watch.
“What did that mean?”
“We’re talking, German, Chrissie.”
At the back of the church: a long box
with a person in it.
I want to look inside
but I’m too far away.
Under the fir trees: a stone and a hole.
Is it really six feet?
Why is the lid shut?
May I move closer, mother?
Both James and Susan agreed with Christine that the memory she recorded in her poem “Letting go” about the last Christmas Walter was with us was memorable:
This is how it should be;
Christmas vacation, and I am six;
Daddy and I are driving outside the city
To a great hill with untouched snow.
Sun warms the car.
I climb up the tracks Daddy makes
hearing the crunch each time the first time.
We stand at the top, just Daddy and I, breathing,
And the sparrows laugh.
"I’m afraid,” I say.
But then we’re sailing
And I’m safe on a narrow strip of wood
clinging to his broad back,
A solid thing in a swaying world,
And I’m laughing and wishing
We could fall like this forever
Into the sun sparkles and whipping wind
And the white snowdrift
Waiting to embrace us
Over and over and over.
To read more of Christine’s poetry as well as an autobiographical sketch and critical essays, go to Christine R. Wiebe, “Writing as Spiritual Journey, Creative Mennonite Writing, Vol. 2, No. 6, Oct. 2010 and also JamesWiebe.blogspot.com in which he writes a lengthy blog about what the loss of his father he barely knew meant to him at “Hasking and Other Reflections on Fatherhood,” February 8, 2012.
Susan read an excerpt from daughter Joanna’s book Birth Mother, (Kindle ebook) about a time when she and Walter attended a revival meeting when she was a young girl and felt compelled by the powerful preaching to go forward at the altar call, yet didn’t think she needed to. He told her she didn’t have to go. “Never let the crowd do the thinking for you. Always do the thinking for the crowd.”
I thought of words he often mentioned to me his father had given him: “It is better to spend fifty years struggling for the truth and making mistakes than to live for a short time according to tradition.” Like father, like son.
Around his gravestone I read from a few of Walter’s published and unpublished writings, including words written to himself: “Some people are born thirty years too soon. Their ideas are ahead of their time. Every invention is but a contravention of customs, every advance in science, political systems, etc. is ahead of its time.”
“Every man is made by his past experiences, advantages, heredity, environment – and by the future he entertains in his breast.”
In his article “Spiritual mountaineering,” about the Old Testament pioneer thinkers Caleb and Joshua, he concluded with a story about a preacher who asked at a service for the names of the two spies who believe God could give Israel the Promised Land. Over a hundred hands shot up, signifying they knew the answer. Then he offered a twenty-dollar bill to anyone who could, from memory, give the names of the other ten spies. No one took up this offer. The ten spies are forgotten, but Caleb is remembered for his faith. “He wholly followed the Lord.” All his life he had but one desire and that was to do God’s bidding. This is what God asks of each one of us – to “die climbing,” Walter concluded. Caleb died climbing.
The time we spent together before that simple gravestone was a good one, remembering, cherishing, loving. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee – for some sooner, for some later. But it is important to keep remembering.