A Farewell to Brett
My beloved friend Brett Foster never wanted to leave anything behind. My wife Teri took this picture of him on the streets of Durham, I believe, in the summer of 2011, when we spent the summer in England leading a study tour. You can see the bag handing from his shoulder, and the scarf, and top of the coffee cup, but not the enormous backback that’s sitting just outside the frame. He was always encumbered in this way, because he never wanted to leave anything behind that he might need.
Now he has left us all behind.
Wheaton College’s Pierce Chapel was not made for funerals, especially Anglican ones, but it served, and hundreds of Brett’s friends arrived there on Saturday to commend his soul to God. November in Chicagoland is typically an unkind month, but the day was sunny and clear and warm enough that someone had opened windows in the chapel. Father Martin Johnson, the rector of All Souls’ Church, where Brett and I and our families were members for a decade, had brought the church’s butcher-block altar over and set it up in front of the stage. That altar had been made for the church by David Hooker, who became one of Brett’s dearest friends. Martin was grieving hard and perhaps working even harder — to make the day right for Brett, and for us.
After the tributes had been made — beautiful words, by some of the many who loved Brett — it was time for Communion. Brad Cathey had made the loaves and laid crosses upon them before baking, and Father Martin and Father Paul stood before the long lines and gave the bread of life, with the words of life.
But then some small chunks of bread fell to the ground at Martin’s feet. One piece was stepped on. I noticed that the poet Scott Cairns, who was sitting right in front of me, saw this, and was looking on in some discomfort. Then, when the last communicant had served, Scott and I at the same moment hunched forward, knelt, picked up every piece, and ate — I quickly and in some embarrassment, he, back in his seat, slowly and with reverence. This is my body, broken for you.
It was time for the final commendations. Martin circled Brett’s coffin with the censer. The sun was low enough now that its light slanted through the open windows, and I could see by that light the smoke of the incense caressing the embroidered pall that covered the coffin. A quiet breeze wafted it away as Martin, his censing completed, stood directly before the coffin. Then he bowed and, with infinite gentleness, kissed it.
We moved then to the cemetery, to commend Brett’s body to the earth, in the hope of the resurrection. As Brett’s wife Anise, and their children Avery and Gus, and Brett’s mother Suzanne, and Anise’s mother Sharie, and all the rest of the family and the great circle of friends looked on, Martin spoke the ancient and beautiful words, and, according to custom, cast the first handfuls of earth onto the coffin.
Though I love those words, I did not, this time, hear them. I looked around and saw that Brett’s corner of the cemetery was surrounded mostly by pines, though one old oak reached out a limb over the grave. It still had its leaves; soon it will shed them over the broken earth there. I remembered the words that Scott Cairns had read earlier, in the time of tributes at the chapel, words that he had written years ago for his father but that could not be more right for this grievous occasion, full of its own strange hope.
And this is the consolation — that the world
doesn’t end, that the world one day
opens up into something better, and then we
one day open up into something far better.
Maybe like this: one morning you finally wake
to a light you recognize as the light you’ve wanted
every morning that has come before. And the air
itself has some light thing in it that you’ve always
hoped the air might have. And One is there
to welcome you whose face you’ve looked for during all
the best and worst times of your life. He takes you to himself
and holds you close until you fully wake.
And it seems you’ve only just awakened, but you turn
and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you.
We’ll go the rest of the way together.