I am at work. At church. My list is long. My focus blurry. My heart somehow connected to my throat.
I woke to a message from Katie, a woman from my first congregation with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while. I should’ve known before I read it, but still, I sat stunned as I read her brief message: Karol Pierce died yesterday.
Karol, a mutual friend, like a father, an uncle, an irreverent brother, a giant of a man who understood the value of being with people. My goodness how he was loved.
Karol was funny, an adjective I reserve for those who earn it. A fine storyteller, he once convinced me he could peel an apple and keep the peel in tact even though he only had one arm. So convincing was he, I never even made him do it. Eventually he confessed that he might have exaggerated — about the entire thing. And that only added to the joy of the tale.
When I visited him during a particularly rough time, when my youngest son was hospitalized, he cried with me. No apologies. No cliches or simple there-theres. Real tears, shared.
I feel more acutely aware of my own right arm today as I try to work, my mind drifting away to the years when I was his pastor and we sat at his kitchen table in the country eating the best homemade vegetable soup on the planet. It was like being in a comfortable cave, set apart from the world, swapping tales and dipping bread into this marvelous soup. He always offered me beer and his eyes twinkled with the offer so that I always accepted.
He loved those cheap pink wafer cookies. He use to say in a conspiratorial voice: I love these damn cookies. I hate that I love them. I tell myself, I don’t need any more. Then I have another.
That’s how it was with Karol. He made you feel like you were in on a secret of great importance. We shared a love of storytelling and we laughed loudly at both our own and one another’s stories. He was the kind of man whose voice remains in your heart — like the refrain of a great song — long after you’ve last heard him speak.
We shared a lot of meals together. His passion for food was second only to his passion for people…and especially for the women who surrounded him: his beautiful wife, Claudette, who followed him from Oklahoma into an adventure that lasted a lifetime. His daughters. His neighbors. Their daughters. He had a way of making you feel beautiful even when your face was blotchy from crying; he had a way of making you feel safe even as his own health faltered.
This morning, my mind keeps drifting to him, to his family, to our mutual friends — to that era of my life. I cry despite my best attempts not to, and then I look at the lists on my desk; the notes trying to pull my attention to the present moment.
But the present moment for me is lost in moments past, with a friend and a family whose welcome to their table had no end.
Stuff-stopping-sorrow. It’s something we never put on our to do list. We do not plan to grieve and yet even the most pressing plans get shoved to the wall when we hear such news.
I need to get ready. People are counting on me. The clock is ticking. Soon a meeting will begin that I am to lead. I hold a baseball in my hand and hear again Karol talking about playing both before…and after…the accident that cost him his arm.
I give in to the fact that the stuff I have to do right now is securely stationed on the edges of this day.
With great love comes great sorrow. The tears we cry as we say goodbye are a tribute to a life well-lived; a soul who loved well. And in my own sentimental heart, I cannot help but imagine that in the next world, where the weak say ‘I am strong’, and the poor say, ‘I am rich’, Karol is winding up to pitch with two strong arms and eyes that twinkle as if he really does have one helluva secret. And it’s a good one. And if you come for supper…he’ll tell you.