We gathered together, quietly, anxiously, some reaching for tissues in anticipation of the tears bound to flow. Seated in the chapel, we waited for the celebration of life ceremony to begin. There are so many reasons to “draw the circle wide.” We were gathered that afternoon to celebrate the life and contributions of one extraordinary individual, an individual whose constant inclusion of the LGBT community was one important legacy.
We, the celebrants, also mourners, were not sure what to expect. Would our colleague and professor participate via Skype? Might he be too tired that day, at home with his family in hospice care, to participate at all? (Would a recording of his voice be broadcast, and would the voice of a living man seem like the voice of an Old Testament God from above? This imagined scenario made me ill-at-ease.) When every seat of the Methodist Chapel was taken, and latecomers were standing, we heard the surprising and welcome words,”All rise to welcome our guest of honor and his family.” We rose, apprehensively, and then, as our beloved professor, colleague, and friend was wheeled to the front of the room, and slowly turned to face us, the clapping and calls of joy and greeting continued for many minutes.
The pithy, yet heartfelt, words of welcome concluded with an invitation to those present to step forward to share. People of all ages, from around the world, and in many languages, spoke not just of our professor, father, friend, but directly to him. We were reminded by one colleague that this vital man of powerful intellect who loved life, family, friends and justice–as well as a good party and music–so ardently, was also often angry, exacting, and demanding. Though slightly reduced in stature and stamina by illness, before us was a familiar person: gentle, helpful, yet often intimidating, and always life-affirming, fully himself. Some tried, but were barely audible when they stood to speak; some sang; others told of being homeless and being invited “home,” not merely once, but as family. All went forward to bestow and receive a kiss.
The ceremony ended with tossing of colorful confetti, which we rained down on one another. We sang as our esteemed teacher and his family left the chapel. The song was an embrace: we held hands in a convoluted ring, singing “Draw the Circe Wide” as they slowly and deliberately moved away. “Amazing Grace” indeed! Atheists, agnostics, believers in a transcendent God, and in the sanctity of physical earthly and human community, a spirit moved through us and united us. This communal spirit and the strength of the man in the wheelchair– unflinchingly, graciously, even joyously attending his own celebration of life ceremony–was a testimony to one life and to all life.