Friday, July 13, 2012


On the Facebook profile of one of my dear friends is a quote by an unknown wise person. It says, "Wish not to live long as to live well." The "quotes" section of her page is filled with similarly profound sayings. The irony of  this? She died in 2008, at the age of 20, after a very brief battle with an unusually cruel strain of Pneumonia. Her words were prophetic, and she followed the advice she had posted on her own page, having no reason to believe she wouldn't live to a ripe old age.

One of the greatest ironies of life is that death is an unavoidable part of it. We think that because someone is young, they have decades left to live, love, and experience the joys of being alive. But that's not always true. And sometimes, it's those we think are the least deserving of an early death- the ones who could do the most good in the world- who die young. 

I remember the first time I met Aaron. It was the second week of my first semester at SEMO, and we were both in Dr. Cameron's Readings in European History. For weeks, I thought of him as the quiet, baby-faced guy who had missed the first week of class because he'd gotten his days mixed up. I also noticed something about him right away: he had one of the most radiant smiles I'd ever seen. And those dimples? I remember thinking they must go all the way to China. 

The weekend before Easter, 2011, Aaron spent in the hospital because of what looked to be an infection in his groin. I still didn't know him well, but by that time I had seen him a number of times at Wal-Mart, sometimes running into him performing awkward tasks like restocking tampons and pads. We were Facebook friends by that time, so we spent a little time on FB chat while he was in the hospital. 

About a week after Easter, I started hanging out with Amber and Aaron. Amber was also in our class, and was Aaron's best friend. We'd make late-night runs to the Huddle House after class, or meet for dinner and then watch a movie. I grew to love both Amber and Aaron very quickly. Aaron loved to tease me (of course, he loved to tease everyone- the more he teased, the more he liked the person!), and we soon wound up in frequent verbal sparring matches, which usually left both of us laughing. Not soon after we started hanging out, Aaron had earned a special nickname from me: Jackass. He would absolutely beam with pride every  time I said that, and usually follow it with a cheeky, "Thank you!" 

Amber and Cayla and I would do our best to make Aaron blush (not terribly hard to do with a good Pentecostal boy!), and he'd do his best to get me as riled up as possible. Before long, I was deeply impressed by his kind heart, and genuine care for other people. We had fun comparing Gospel pianists, and Christian (as well as non-Christian) comedians, and sometimes would shake our heads together at the bad theology we would occasionally encounter in other people's conversations or preaching. 

By the time he was told that "infection" on his groin was actually cancer, we had only been hanging out for about a month, but I had already grown so close to Amber and Aaron that I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I still remember where I was sitting in Amber's apartment when Aaron sent her the text that he indeed had cancer. The next several months were filled with research about Ewing Sarcoma, encouraging Aaron through his first rounds of chemo, shaving his head, etc. 

My friendship with Aaron continued to grow over the next year. He'd come stop by my office in the history department, and I loved seeing him appear at the door and hearing his, "What's uuup?" I looked forward to seeing him at Wal-Mart, where he would always spot me, chuckle, shake his head, and then say, "What are you DOING here?" Then he'd tease me about needing more ibuprofen, Icy Hot, or even groceries. Sometimes his co-workers would be around for an insult, and then tell me I was free to hit him as hard as I wanted. He had it coming. 

The last week of classes this past Spring semester, Aaron, Amber, and I, along with some others met for dinner at McAlister's, as we often did. I remember walking out the door and saying to Aaron, "If I don't see you before then, I'll see you in August." He smiled and said, "Okay, have a good summer!" And we both went our separate ways. Not two weeks later, Aaron totaled his car in an accident caused by brain tumors from the cancer. 

It wasn't long before I realized it was the beginning of the end for him. I was in Cincinnati for the summer, and made the 7 hour drive back to Cape to say my goodbyes to him. It was heartbreaking, but I'll never regret going. And I'll never forget his goodbye to me. As I left his house, he reached for my hand from the recliner where he'd been sleeping on and off, squeezed it, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "It was really good to see you. Thanks for coming." It was the first time he'd said anything nice to me without a hint of sarcasm. And I knew he meant it, and I knew my friendship mattered to him. 

I went back to Cincinnati, and kept up with everything via Facebook. It broke my heart to watch him slipping away. When my friends told me they were sorry I was losing a friend like Aaron, I found myself saying, "Thanks. Death is a part of life." And so it is. For all of us. We're all dying. Some just faster than others. 

Finally, when his mother posted that he had taken his final breath the evening of Tuesday, July 10th, I cried. My whole body shook, feeling that a part of me had been torn open. We'd only been friends for a little over a year, but, as with my friendship with Amber, our relationship grew in a way that in a matter of weeks, it seemed like we'd always been friends. 

I also mourned the fact that he missed turning 29 by 3 days, and the fact that my own 29th birthday was a mere 3 weeks away. How could I celebrate turning 29 when Aaron so narrowly missed it himself, and only weeks before? Of course, I realize that I can honor Aaron by embracing each birthday I celebrate that he didn't get to. He'd tell me to make the most of the time I've been given, because life is a gift, and it can end at any time.

So, dear Aaron, two years ago, I had no idea who you were. But in the short time we knew each other, you made a bigger impact on my life than you will ever know. You have left me with so many memories: 
Huddle House. 
The times you'd turn as red as that red polo you sometimes wore, because we managed to embarrass you. 
That time you and Amber came for dinner, and you sat down and played "Amazing Grace" on my piano. 
The way you smiled when I called you a jackass. 
That time you looked me in the eye and said, "You're no moderate. You're a conservative in denial." 
The night the three of us were in the library and we found out about Osama bin Laden's death- I'll never forget the look on your face. 
Our three-hour round trip to Amber's wedding, and how when you dropped me off at home, you said, "This was fun, I'm glad we did it." Then when you saw the smirk on my face, you added, "And if you tell ANYONE I said that, I will KILL you."
Singing in the car on the way to and from the wedding.
Billy Joel's "She's Got a Way About Her."
"Unchained Melody."
Lex Luthor.
Blazing Saddles.
The Supremes.
Polos and khakis.
Your views on square toed shoes.
The night you came to Dr. Nickell's class, sat between Amber and me, and alternately wrote us notes on your yellow note pad.
That awful night at Denny's the night before you had your biopsy, which turned your world upside down.

You will always hold a special place in my heart. I will never forget you, the heart you had for high school kids, your sister, and God. Your smile will forever be etched in my mind. I will always remember the grace  with which you faced your illness, and eventual death at such a young age. I will forever be grateful for the time God allowed me to spend with you. You have embodied the quote with which I opened this eulogy: Wish not to live long as to live well. 

Aaron, I have had the lyrics to a song running through my head for the last week. I can't help but think about you, because they apply to you so well:
When my life on earth is o'er
And I stand on Heaven's shore,
And I'm called into the presence of the Savior I adore,
When at first I see His holiness I'll fall upon my face,
But when my Savior calls my name, I'll rise to hear Him say,

"Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Great has been your service, now great is your reward.
Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Come into the joy of your Lord.
No more death, no more pain, no more tears can remain,
Faithful servant, my dear child, welcome home."

Let us serve Him faithfully until like Him we shall be.
Let us run the race with patience 'til His glory we shall see.
For the memories of this present life will quickly fade away,
And we'll forget all of life's suffering when we hear Jesus say:

"Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Great has been your service, now great is your reward.
Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Come into the joy of your Lord.
No more death, no more pain, no more tears can remain,
Faithful servant, my dear child, welcome home."
(Copyright John D. Cornish, 2000. Used by permission)

This is how I picture your entrance to Heaven. You have fought the good fight, you have kept the faith, you have finished the race. Well done, friend. Well done.