There have been many songs, poems and books written attempting to convey the concept found in the expression: "You don't know what you have till it's gone". Those words are so frequently said that the expression has become almost cliché.
But this past week I learned the truth of it.
Last Wednesday night I was walking into church from the parking lot. Through the glass doors I saw my wife heading towards me, tears in her eyes. I opened the doors, stepped through and she grabbed my arm and uttered a phrase I will likely never forget:
"Jeremy, Cary died. He's gone."
I stood there in stunned silence trying to process the news. Cary, my good friend, father-figure and mentor had passed away. He was my father-in-law's best friend, his two twin sons were close friends of mine, and my kids were friends with his grandchildren. Unexpectedly the man I always thought of as tough and invincible had died at the young age of fifty-nine.
Death is such an odd, complicated thing.
When it comes slowly creeping up on our loved ones it leeches the strength from them. But it affects those of us who remain as well. Though we don't speak of it openly, eventually we almost wish death would come. In those moments, we secretly pray for the end of the suffering, the pain and the grief. We watch as modern medicine is able to keep a body alive, but not give our loved ones a life. When it does come, though the pain is still great, we are prepared for it, we've come to grips with the inevitability of it and we are comforted somewhat in knowing that while we would have loved to have that person with us still, at least it's over for them, and their suffering has ended.
But when it comes suddenly, with no warning, it's worse than the hardest punch in the gut. We feel robbed of closure, we're jealous for those years the deceased had left, the contributions they could have made. Thoughts and emotions wash over us in an instant, that, had death come slowly, we could have processed over time. What will we do? What will life be like without them?
In many ways our life is a bit like a box full of sand. People and things go into our little sandbox and they make impressions, they create divots and our life morphs around them seamlessly like a toy that's settled into the sand at the beach. When death comes slowly we have time to mentally pull them from our life, and allow the sand to settle to fill in that space over the passage of time.
But when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly it's like pulling that toy from the wet sand, the impression is left and we immediately feel that hole, that void. We cannot deny or overlook the impact they had made in our life and pain fills that void.
That's how Cary's passing has made so many of us feel.
You see, like most people, I never looked at Cary to consider how his death might affect me. Who does that? It's morbid.
But when I heard he'd passed away, I was suddenly acutely aware of just how much of an impact he'd had on me. It was then that I realized the truth of the expression: "You don't know what you have till it's gone."
In the week since his passing, I've realized just how much of my life he was involved in, and how much strength I drew from his steady presence. Who would walk by me on Sunday's collecting the offering with a smile? Who would drive the bus? I thought about the kids in the Sunday School class he taught, and how devastated they will be, his co-workers, his sons, his grandkids, his wife. I thought about all the young men at our church that looked up to him and idolized him. About the Chuck Norris style jokes they told about him. My favorite of which is:
Brother Cary put the laughter in manslaughter.
So many things will never be the same. It won't be the same knowing I will never go hunting with him again. I will never feel the reassuring warmth of his handshake. He will never walk up to me and put his hand on my shoulder, give it a squeeze and ask me how I'm doing. I'll never hear his peaceful, quiet voice again.
Cary, the mountain man from Montana.
Cary was from Montana, and if you picture the stereotypical Montana man in your head, it's probably a pretty accurate depiction. It was as though God had compiled a list of everything that's tough, poured it into a mold and from it, created Cary. Carved from rough-hewn stone, steel and gnarled oak roots, was he. He was stocky and square, heavily muscled. Incredibly strong, active and hardworking, he embodied every idyllic attribute a man can have. He seemed invincible to me and other young men who looked up him.
He had a kind face that always reminded me of one of those Easter Island heads. With a mustache. Cary was one of the few men who could pull off a mustache and make it look manly and not creepy.
Tom Selleck showed pictures of Cary's mustache to his barber for guidance.
He was tough as nails yet gentle as a summer breeze. He was kind. That seems such a simple inadequate description for such a man, but that's what he was. Kind.
One summer at youth camp, Cary was overseeing a friendly boxing match between two high-school aged boys. A boxer himself growing up, Cary knew what to look for to spot when a young man's mindset went from "Sparring" to "I'm-going-to-kill-you". As the match wore on, both boys got angry and started wailing on each other. In a perfectly calm manner, Cary strode into the flurry of blows, grabbed each boy by the shirt collar and pulled them apart as easily as though he were separating sheets of paper. The sulking young men looked like wet cats in his massive hands.
He was strong but meek. The perfect balance of power and control.
One minute Cary could be on a hay wagon hurling bales of hay at forty to fifty pounds apiece and then stop, kneel in the grass and listen to a story from a young child that most men would dismiss out of hand. But not Cary, he had time for everyone, young and old, rich and poor, white and black. It didn't matter. No one was beneath his notice or unworthy of his attention. He never sacrificed the feelings of those he worked with for the sake of "getting the job done". Accomplishing a task wasn't worth it to him he had to abuse or neglect those working with him. He'd sit and listen in rapt attention as one of my daughters would recount some long, rambling story of princesses and ponies with never a care to what he needed to get done.
For a generation of young men like me, growing up without a father of our own, he was an inspiration, a mentor, someone to look up to. Young men vied for his attention, tested their growing muscles against him in feats of strength and loved him even as he whipped them. We looked at him and knew, even though he wasn't a Hollywood actor or pro athlete, he was the sort of man we should grow up to emulate. For a generation of young women growing up with those same young men, they looked at Cary and knew that even though he wasn't on the cover of GQ magazine or Forbes, he was the sort of man they should seek to marry. All of us young men were stacked up against his example.
In spite of our best efforts, all of us were found wanting.
I have so many memories of Cary, all of them good. Times we talked at church, just shooting the breeze. Times on the hay wagon toiling under the brutal summer sun. I remember him at my wedding, and the weddings of all four of my brothers-in-law and sister-in-law. I remember cold, winter nights laughing in his barn while we cleaned and butchered a deer one of us had got while hunting. Mornings and evenings spent in the woods hunting. I never saw him angry, stressed, or short-tempered.
He taught me many, many lessons.
Oddly enough I can't think of a single time I asked him for advice. That's not because he had nothing to teach, or lacked wisdom, on the contrary he was one the wisest men I have known. The thing with Cary was you didn't need to ask him his advice. You simply had to look at him, watch him. His life WAS advice. In all things you could look to him and know what you should do. There was no need to ask.
His life was everything you needed to know about how to live your own.
In all the years I knew Cary, I never saw any bitterness or anger in him. Beyond the obvious, this is remarkable for two reasons. The first is that as a person who struggles a great deal with bitterness and anger myself, I am genuinely in awe of anyone who is so easily able to overlook the everyday injustices of life. The second reason is that Cary was a man who had managed true forgiveness and peace in his life, while having a legitimate reason for anger and bitterness.
Over the years I've seen him navigate situations in his life that would have shattered me into a thousand pieces. Situations that would have driven me mad, indignant over the injustice of it all. Through it all I watched as his reputation and character were tried in the furnace of tribulation. And I have watched him come out the other side better, stronger, and somehow, in spite of it all, kinder and more gracious.
Watching his life day in and day out, made me ashamed of the petty complaints that so easily got under my skin.
During the crucifixion of Christ, the bible tells us that Christ was mocked, lied about and falsely accused. Through it all he never answered, which I never understood. Why didn't Christ ever reply? It was the sort of thing I understood as having happened in the bible. But not the sort of thing I had actually seen.
I have watched people mistreat Cary and his family; ministries abuse him and discard him. I have heard stories of lesser, petty men and women disparaging his reputation and attacking him behind his back. I couldn't understand how he could keep quiet, how he could keep going. Letting it go, letting it happen went against everything I believed in.
Of all the things Cary taught me, I didn't understand the most important lesson until after his passing. It took his death, and seeing the impact it's had on the people who knew him, for me to learn this final, precious bit of instruction. That lesson is best summed up as this:
A well-lived life of integrity, needs no defending.
I've known men who were honest, fair and kind. Men who were faithful husbands, loyal friends and good fathers. Cary was all these things.
But more than that, Cary is the only example I've ever seen in my life of a man enduring injustice and trial with a spirit of meekness, kindness and integrity. I cannot fathom the strength of will it must have taken for him to overcome such trials, and I will forever be grateful for his example of Christ-like suffering. I doubt I will ever see such an example again.
But I get it now Brother Cary.
Until we meet again, my friend.