by Holt Fairfield Butt, IV

And around us
like a blanket of lilies
lay the snow

in the crooks of trees
along iron fence rails
against weathered headstones it clung
folded like fair linens
across the outstretched arms
of a carved stone statue

pristine, sterile, silent
a soft comforter
across row and row
of the dead who lay below

Mourners had gathered
at the edge of the path
and a sudden gust of wind
struck their feet
like the sting of a swordblade

They shuffled, shifted, swung their arms
rubbed gloved hands
huddled closer together

They watched as their breaths
formed delicate trails,
then vanished in the cold air
like candle smoke

We have watched
in these last months
as Tom inexorably worsened
in his illness

watched as disease withered him
shriveled his flesh
clogged his lungs
stifled his breath

We have watched as the fine features
of his face shrunk
watched as his skin erupted and blotched
watched, strained to listen, and waited
as coughs wracked his emaciated form

watched as his fine mind wandered
until he became like a candle wick
whose flame sputtered and spat
of its own wax
drowning in its own flow

We watched
we did what we could
and we felt helpless, frightened, angry,
and we felt loved and loving

We at those critical points
in our lives remember Tom watching us
watching with a sunburst smile of delight
as he saw us reach for and grasp
something profoundly human
something he and we knew
had not been there the moment before
a critical moment

like the electric current,
the crackle between the forefingers
of the God of Creation and Adam
in Michelangelo's astounding fresco
on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Tom watched me years ago
as I struggled in my own confusion and fury
with an alcoholic mate
watched years later
as I sweated and twisted and groaned
day after day
on a hospital bed following surgery

Tom watched us all
with that particular pursing of the lips,
that wry Harper grimace
which often signaled his response
to a situation not to his liking

With one word or phrase
with one snap remark
he would slice away and deftly expose
our position to a righter context
from that which we had so righteously held

As I watch I see in us all
bits of what I call the drawer and the passer
We draw something of value
something of truth from each other
and we can choose to pass this on
to someone else

I drew from Tom
the way to a fellowship
which supported me in dealing with me
first instead of my mate

I passed this to others
who were isolated, anguished, grieving

I drew from Tom light and love
across the rooftops of our sleeping city
during a night of delirium and darkness

I pass this on to others in their illnesses
I passed this back to Tom in his illness

But the question
like an enormously swollen storm cloud
hovers over us unsettling, threatening

Why this terrible, unthinkable disease
this nightmare plague
across our land and world
why the inequity, the suffering, the loss
why this death of a man
who passed so much to so many?
Enough, we cry, Enough

I do not know the answer
You do not know the answer
It is a confounding mystery
yet I do know this:
Tom's response to this illness
uncovered in him
more of that vein of precious gold
just beneath the old familiar surface rock

One evening at supper
his ravaged face filled with light,
he said uncharacteristically
and uncomplicatedly,
"You know,
when I first found out about this thing
the spiritual just snapped on for me
it is like a kind of circumference
it takes the form of a circle
it returns, and now what happens
is I'm just going home. It's all right."

My brothers and sisters, you must know
as I do that Tom used the months he had left
used his gifts of language, love, intellect, warmth, his crusty and often abrasive
sense of humor, to prepare us and him
for his dying, for his going home.

You do know that his first fifty years
became preparation for his last year,
like that curious surging up of the flame
on the wick before it dims to ember and smoke

You do know that in these last weeks
it was as if his fingers
were drawn across our foreheads
blessing us, sealing us, drawing from us
yet passing to us
the lives of love we could live
in the time left before we too come home

Brother man, Sister woman
Listen, Listen,
we have within us still
the steady flames of Tom's quick intelligence
his incisive humor
his joy in bringing out from behind a chair
unsuspected gifts for us,
even his irascible, churlish, Irish,
immovable Teddy-bearish nature

But, most of all, we have
his calling forth of ourselves
from within ourselves
I know that I am called forth each day
to find in each of you your gifts,
those sources of grace, of joy, of life, sources of our shared struggle
in the journey.

We strike these flames now
in each of our own individual darknesses
we wing the sunlight
of our individual victories
each step along the way
we pass on what we have from each other
to each other

As mourners we watch as flakes of snow
slip from branch to branch and to the ground
the earth will draw the moisture
the great flame of the sun
will draw fields of flowers
across the sleeping ground of the dead

Tom, we have drawn from you

Sisters, Brothers, I draw from you
I call to you
I give you a charge in Tom's name,
in the name of our Higher Power
Who gives us life,

Pass on the flame!
Pass on the flame!





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