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Warm breezes tinged the glistening grass near the parking lot around St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Brentwood, MO. Clusters of mourners shifted feet, gawked. Some smoked.

In the distance a fire truck glinted in the sun; behind it, the slow moving cortege inched its way toward the porte-cochere, then stopped. Uniformed firemen stood at attention as attendants guided the coffined remains of one of theirs onto a gurney. Inside the great oak doors three vested priests welcomed the recently deceased into his church-home with prayers and incensing and sprinkling with holy water, reminiscent of his baptism.

Noted for his soulful dark eyes, his forehead crinkling in mirth, his brogue, he taught others wherever he went: as a firefighter, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a neighbor. Forty-two years of practicing the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous also ennobled his character.

Stage IV leukemia, diagnosed in the spring of 2014, paradoxically, enlivened his willingness to undergo painful clinical trials at Siteman Center, knowing they would enable oncologists to help others suffering with his disease. Never did he complain. His frequent phone contacts with his network in the ICU, in the Leukemia Unit, or at home always ended with “Talk at cha later!”

But the fire of his disease eventually cleansed his soul for eternal life.

 At the conclusion of the Mass of Resurrection, the honor guard again stepped into the main aisle and snapped to attention. It was time for the Last Call. A crisp radio voice sounded throughout the church announcing the deceased’s name and passing, the same message broadcasted to all receivers on fire trucks, police cars, and emergency vehicles in the St. Louis Metro area. Then three gongs sounded on the portable fire bell. Silence hallowed the emptiness.

His name was Joe Bratcher.

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The tiger lilies are back, lining fences, adorning ditches, and tangling in humid breezes. In our neighborhood, Talk of the Town, flourishes; from their deep centers emerge six stamens, a pistil, and soft yellow lines on each of the six petals. Such orangeness ushers in the deeper colors of summer: gold, scarlet, peach, raspberry, and indigo.

So ordinary, the tiger lily thrives in both cultivated and wild regions around the world, its rootedness within the mystery of death and rebirth. We have a similar rootedness. How many springs have we experienced, only to move into still another summer, followed by autumn, and winter? Only to be restored, again, our spirits filled with new oranges glistening with dew?

On a lighter note … It was a June morning, long ago, and hot. As very young nun, I was asked to arrange flowers in the refectory to honor the visit of our new Vicar. After pinning up my skirts, I meandered through the dense woods surrounding our limestone stone convent. Near the creek bed bloomed a profusion of long-stemmed orange flowers. Breathless with my discovery, I cut armfuls, hurried inside, painstakingly placed them in vases, and set them on refectory tables. Excitement tore through me. Certainly I would win the approval of my superior and the other nuns. That evening, following spiritual reading, everyone processed to the refectory for supper. Titterserupted. It was about those orange flowers. They had morphed into dark knobs.

 

 

 

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He loved red fire trucks, blue cars, his toolbox, 45 RPM records, crayons and coloring books.

He hankered after French fries, root beer floats, and many cups of tea.

He called all his caregivers, “Mom.”

His soft eyes mirrored the Light of God’s surprise.

He laughed from his tinkling heart.

He never judged anyone, nor spoke a cross word.

He never went to school, developed a career, married.

He aged with mirth – balding, toothless, his boy-body, shriveling and graying.

He hated needles.

He bounced back from multiple infections, heart irregularities.

He knew Jesus.

He lived with Down’s syndrome for sixty-one years.

 

His name was Johnny.

 

We grieve the absence of God’s hilarity in his face.

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