By: magnolia_admin | June 21, 2017
[His] absence is like the sky, spread over everything. ~ CS Lewis
The weeks after a sudden death are like stumbling through a familiar room in the dark. You think you remember where your couch is, and whether or not your toddler left blocks in the floor, but you take slow, halting steps towards the light switch, dragging your feet across the rug. Everything you encounter is nudged carefully with your sock feet in case it isn’t quite what you remember being in that spot before the lights went out.
That describes my work here at the funeral home without Nathan Dixon. The surroundings are familiar but somehow everything has changed and is uncertain. I find myself asking what Nathan would have done or said – how he would have handled things.
Nathan exemplified everything good about our profession – he was kind, he was considerate, he was gentle. His words were soothing and hopeful.
“Oh, don’t you look nice,” his soothing voice would rumble through the dressing room as we lowered a man into a casket. “Your family has done such a good job,” he would assure him, straightening the deceased’s tie. “I’ve never seen a sharper suit.” If you asked him if the dead could hear him, he would shrug and smile. But that was how Nathan was. If he wasn’t sure if you needed him or not, he erred on the side of encouragement. “Your family will be here to see you,” he’d remind them as we arranged the casket in the visitation room. “I know you can’t wait.”
Nathan devoted all of himself to each family – and treated each individual who came into our funeral home in the way he wanted us to treat his own. The gentle giant would guide each sorrowing family through their grief into a goodbye that would help them move towards the light, taking the brunt of the anger and frustration that rears its head in times like that without a second thought. He absorbed their grief, he comforted their hearts, and he tried to help bring out the joy of a life well lived.
I never heard Nathan say if he had a “life verse” from the Bible, but if I had to find one that his life seemed to be based on it would be from Proverbs 15: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. A wholesome tongue is a tree of life…the lips of the wise disperse knowledge. A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance…he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast. He that is slow to anger appeaseth strife.”
Nathan was a peacemaker. Seemingly passive and unflappable, the man could stand firm in the wildest situations, nod understandingly, and slowly calm down the most disquieted soul. Everything he said was slow and certain – he never spoke without thinking.
Not exemplifying the discipline of calmness myself, there were many times I turned to Nathan to vent my frustrations about whatever incident I felt afforded a discontented mood.
“Now Dr. Gregory,” he would drawl “you know that’s just nothing to get excited about, we’ll deal with it as it happens.” For inexplicable reasons, he referred to me as doctor. I’m not sure why it started and can’t remember a time he didn’t say it, but anytime my phone rang and the screen lit up with his name, I knew the first words I heard would be “Dr. Gregory!” and that my reply, never said without a smile, was “Reverend”. The Reverend designation is easy to understand – Nathan was a born pastor. He typified an evangelist – always ready with good news, with encouragement, with a promise of hope.
Though I didn’t attend Nathan’s church, I heard most of his sermons the Monday after he preached them, when he would deliver them again in conversation to me. I can’t imagine that his delivery was more passionate in the walls of a church. His faith carried him through his life; not always easily or without trouble, but with a quiet confidence and a genuine love that filled his heart. I heard his exhortations, his gentle entreaties, and his admonitions. He loved the Word – he loved the Gospel – he loved his God.
His final sermon was preached from a pulpit the Sunday before his death, but the sermon of his life will not end until all of us who were touched by him are gone.
And now my office is empty. Nothing has changed in it but the absence of the man who towered over me in every way. His hulking frame would lower into my chair and a laugh would rumble out of his chest as he told me stories I can no longer remember and will never hear again. The words of life he spoke to me now live only in my heart. I can no longer turn and look up to Nathan to ask what to do, or to hear rumbling guidance to be calm, to be sure, to be steady. The governor on my engine has slipped and I feel myself spinning wildly, wearing out too fast. There is no hand the size of my head to pat my shoulder and reassure me, no broad shoulders to take the sadness with me, and no jovial laugh to lighten my spirit.
And now this week I do for my friend what I have done for a thousand others. I tuck him into his final resting place and become the last person on earth to see his face and commit him to eternity. I will straighten his tie and pat his shoulder and send him to God the best way I know how: the way Nathan did it.
“Good job, Reverend. ” I’ll tell him. “You look sharp.”June 21, 2017