My wife’s grandfather, William Nowell, died in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on May 24th in Community Medical Center and in the company of his wife, daughters and son. They tell me that his last breath was a deep, comfortable one.
Upon his funeral, I was asked to say a few words. The following is what I said in memory of William Nowell (1922-2011).
When you meet a man for the first time, and within seconds he is already in the middle of a joke, you immediately learn something or two about that man.
You learn the vitality at the forefront of the man even as you wonder about the life or spirit behind the vitality. And you get a strong sense that this man likes to put the other person at ease.
My favorite joke – of the many jokes told by William Nowell – was actually very short and one that was quite situational or circumstantial.
Upon a new haircut, if you asked him if he got his hair cut, he'd respond: “No, I got them all cut.”
On Tuesday, when I heard from my wife Amie that Bill had passed through the Door, this joke popped into my mind.
As did this poem by another William – William Carlos Williams – about barbers and haircuts.
talked to me
sleep to trim
my hair –
he said, we die
every night –
When you only meet someone late in their life yet relatively early in yours, it is easy to forget that this person has already lived several lives (had numerous haircuts).
After Bill’s death, I was reminded of this while watching a YouTube video where Bill is in France in 2004, having returned to Omaha Beach in Normandy for the first time in 60 years.
There he was in the video – along with his wife Alice – receiving his 60th anniversary medal commemorating that defining moment in World War II.
And it reminded me of his service to our country. His life was part of that great Builder generation – long before my parents dreamed me up and long before Amie and I dreamed up our children.
Bill is a testament to the reality that…Even small men of stature can participate in very tall things.
Marrying into the family, I would come to know a little more of William Nowell – and his life of many haircuts.
For instance, I dare say: if there was one piece of chocolate left on earth, about the only person he’d consider sharing it with is Jesus. Such was his love for chocolate – and for Jesus.
And how many times after holiday gatherings did I see him walk outside to the car with Alice, shuffling beside her, a simple, steady picture of strong faithfulness?
Then there’s the late summer of 1996.
Two months before Amie and I were married, I lived with Bill and Alice in their apartment on Ridge Avenue in Scranton. I was working for Amie’s mom, Barbara, at the bank formerly known as NatWest. After work, I would drive home late in the evening from NatWest, taking Mulberry Street through downtown Scranton to get to Bill’s apartment.
After telling Bill I was driving down Mulberry Street late at night, he responded startled: “You shouldn’t drive down Mulberry Street at night.”
I protested that it wasn’t a problem, that I rather liked the downtown parts of cities, that as a pastor who worked with college students it was no big deal.
But he insisted.
This was Bill: Even his occasional stubbornness had a certain charm to it – his sense of wanting to protect the ones he loved.
My final little anecdote involves the word return.
If I was a barber and I was giving Bill his final haircut, I’d tell him this story.
I’d tell him the one about the day before his funeral – when I checked my family into the Best Western Plus on Tigue Street in Dunmore.
This hotel – which in a previous life was a Holiday Inn – was the very same hotel into which I checked my extended family (and other wedding guests) upon the occasion of my wedding to Amie in October 1996.
Of course, that weekend Bill was there to walk my bride (his granddaughter) down the aisle at Grace Bible Church.
I’d tell him that checking into that hotel sent me into a reflection on what it means to return, what it means to go back.
Which brought me back to Genesis 2:7 and the setting at the beginning of the world, according to the Scriptures.
The text says: “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Today we remember that it is to God – the one who first gave him breath and has given us all breath – that Bill has returned.
And it is because of Jesus Christ that Bill will breathe forever.