In the summer of 2010, as part of a Lilly Renewal Grant, I drove through the picturesque New England countryside to see an old friend I had never met.
His work anchored my life and preaching for 38 years. He sustained me and made my own anxiety and fear and grief easier to bear. He gave me hope.
His son-in-law told me he usually did not see people he did not know. But he agreed to see me, perhaps considering some common life experiences I had shared in my introductory letter.
With joyful anticipation, I arrived at a beautiful farm home tucked away in the western mountains of Vermont. Closing the car door, I heard him call out from the back gate, “Come on up. Glad to see you. Pull up a chair and sit in this shady spot.”
The July weather was almost Mississippi hot. I removed my coat. His hospitality drew me in. I felt at home in his presence, as if we had visited many times.
There are people who so impact our lives that we must seek them out to say thank you. For me and Fredrick Buechner, it came down to three things: his hope , which sustained him and kept him going; his courage in sharing his own vulnerabilities; and his honesty, in acknowledging his lifelong predisposition to conjure up the worst in any situation. “Awfulizing,” he called it.
Sitting under the shade of his backyard trees, I told Fred Buechner that many of us belong to that club.
On nights I’ve been unable to sleep, waiting for my own children to return home and hearing an occasional siren in the distance, Fred wrote for me when describing his own staring out the window, yearning for a stream of headlights coming up the drive.
He told me he had not coped well with his daughter’s anorexia — how whether she ate a bite of toast in the morning either made or destroyed his day. “My own anxiety was making her sicker,” he said.
How I could relate to that in the way I responded to my son’s struggles with alcohol! I remembered his writing in Telling Secrets: A Memoir, “It was not until she was 3,000 miles away on another coast, away from me, that she began to get better.”
Here in Vermont, he went on to tell me that he needed to do his best to take care of himself, to be a happy person, so that if she did get well, she would have a healthy father to come home to. “How many times has that revelation sustained me,” I told him.
We talked about the longing for home in his writing. We talked about his dysfunctional home, which most of us, he said, have experienced at some level. I asked him about any happy times for his family, and he told me about a trip to Bermuda with his mother and brother after his father’s tragic suicide.
“Of course, going away never takes away all of the pain,” he said, “But it was one of the happier times in my life.”
Fred remembers his father hardly at all — his appearance, his words, his mannerisms. That awful loss on an early November morning caused Fred to ask questions for which there are no answers, as another awful loss, now over 30 years ago, caused for me. We go on, because it’s all we can do. We keep going if for no other reason than that they would want us to. They would want us to be a “force for life” for others in despair. We might have missed it the first time when our loved one was in despair and we didn’t know how deeply.
I told Fred that one of the many ways he inspired me was writing about the ways he loves his father, rather than blaming him.
In The Yellow Leaves, Buechner writes:
“I love him for his terrible luck in marrying the wrong girl at the wrong time and for all those nothing jobs he took because they were the only jobs he could find. I love him for the few lines he wrote in pencil to my mother at his death, thinking she would be the only one to see them.”
I have never blamed my sister for taking her life, although I have missed her terribly all these years. She was the only one who shared with me that particular family – that particular growing-up time of the fifties and sixties, the memories of our parents, and of all those places: the small towns we moved to as children of a Methodist minister in rural Mississippi, and how we “adapted” because that was all we could do. I miss her for the children and family she never had, the nieces and nephews, the first cousins for our children, the empty places at Christmas.
I miss her for all these reasons, and more. But even then, like Buechner, I have never blamed her. I love her. She was intelligent and attractive, the homecoming queen in high school and college, an accomplished pianist, someone who could light up a room. She was a medical social worker at Children’s Hospital in Denver, where she worked with young patients and their families in pediatric oncology. Theresa knew more about death than most of us do.
I cannot know, nor can anyone, the level of pain she must have felt. I wish she had let us — let me — know. She tried, and we didn’t have the eyes to see or ears to hear. And for that, I continue to pray for forgiveness. I think of all those times I could have been kinder and more patient and been the older brother she needed. I am thankful she called the night before and said those words, “I love you, Warren,” and wrote in her last note to “help the children with this.”
Driving away from his home, I silently offered a benediction: Fred, even though you’re old enough to be my father, you are, in a way, like the older brother I never had. The bends and turns in the road have not been the same for us, but they have been similar. We have not sought all the things that have come our way but you, in your life, have lived out the hope you write about. Thanks, not only for the words, but for your faithful life and spirit from which the words come. They are a gift!
Speaking to the fledgling preachers of the 1979 graduating class of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Fred said:
The world is full of dark shadows to be sure, both the world without and the world within, and the road we’ve set off on is long and hard and often hard to find, but the word is trust. Trust the deepest intuitions of your own heart, trust the source of your own truest gladness, trust the road, trust him. And praise him too. Praise him for all we leave behind us in our traveling. Praise him for all we lose that lightens our feet, for all that the long road of the years bears off like a river. Praise him for stillness in the wake of pain. But praise him too for the knowledge that what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and that all the dark there ever was, set next to the light, would scarcely fill a cup.
Your words have been a mantra of hope for me throughout my life and ministry. Thanks, Fred, and happy birthday.