This past month, we had to say good bye to one of our core members. After months of chemo, and doing surprisingly well and staying upbeat and active,our friend Pat took a turn for the worse and quickly made his exit. He was a much loved member of our community, having lived in L'Arche Heartland for 27 years - we would actually sometimes refer to him as the King of L'Arche. He was quick with a compliment, always telling people they were handsome or skinny or beautiful, that they needed a raise or a vacation or a thousand dollars. He'd tell people they were good cooks, even if they weren't the ones who had prepared the meal. In fact, the evening before he went into the hospital, which is the last time I spoke with him, from his bed with his blanket pulled up to his chin, and his bare feet sticking out the bottom, he looked at me and said, "You look handsome, Mark. You're as skinny as a horse!"
He also had a good sense of humor. One time, when I was living in the house with him, I was cooking dinner. We had chosen to have these frozen, breaded chicken breasts for the meal. There were cooking instructions on the bag for a conventional oven or a convection oven. In my quick glance at the instructions, I chose to read the wrong ones and cooked the chicken in our conventional oven following the convection oven instructions. We sat down at the table, said grace, and started to eat. I cut a piece off of my chicken and put it in my mouth and immediately knew it was wrong. I spit it out and told everyone to stop eating their chicken right away. "Oh my!" Pat exclaimed. "Mine's pink!" For years afterward, even just days before he died, when Pat and I were around other people, mixed in with his usual compliments would be "Mark's a good cook. He makes good chicken." Everyone would think he was paying me a nice compliment, but I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he was referring to my "pink chicken" as he liked to call it.
Living with him, I got used to the sound of stomping, clapping, and whooping coming from upstairs. His bedroom was in the attic and he spent a lot of his time watching game shows and sports games. He was an enthusiastic viewer, and would cheer for his favorites, clapping and whooping when they did well. He'd also stomp or shout when they did poorly, too. After living with him for about a week or two, it just became part of the background noise of the house.
His singing voice was kind of a surprise. I remember the first time I heard it. I had been in L'Arche for about two weeks at this time, and we were at our annual Faith and Sharing retreat. We were getting ready to sing some songs, and Pat and I were sitting next to each other on a couch. The guitars started to play and we began to sing and Pat, who was kind of a bigger guy, busts out in this operatic falsetto singing voice. It actually startled me, and I reacted visibly. Another assistant on the other side of the room from us noticed and she started laughing. Then I started laughing. Pat saw me laughing so he started laughing.
Pat's laugh was something else, too. It was always interspersed with loud snorts, which would always make the people around him laugh harder. I never was sure whether he was doing it on purpose, or not, but I kind of have a feeling that it was on purpose because he liked the reaction that they received. Pat enjoyed making people smile and laugh and feel good.
He liked people, and liked to be social, but wasn't always a fan of large crowds. A lot of times he'd find his way to the back of the room, or to a quiet corner, or even out in the hallway or the parking lot. If you didn't know where Pat was, you just assumed he snuck out early, and then you'd have to go out and find him.
I feel like that's what he did when he died, too. He just snuck out early. He didn't want it to be a big deal. He didn't want people gathering around and making him the center of attention. He just wanted to quietly leave while people were paying attention to something else.
After he passed, we had a Celebration of Life to honor his memory. We sang some songs that we knew he would have enjoyed, and we shared stories and memories about him. There was a lot of purple decorations (it was his favorite color) and pictures of him throughout his life, and his 27 years in L'Arche.
Yesterday, with the help of a few assistants, we finished moving his stuff out of his bedroom. I remember standing in the middle of his room, thinking that this was it. This was the final good bye. I was acknowledging that Pat won't be coming back to this room, he won't be singing or watching tv and cheering and clapping anymore. For the past 27 years, Pat has been a constant in our community. He has known six Community Leaders. He's welcomed several new Community Coordinators. He's seen many assistants come and go. Each one has come to know Pat, to enjoy his singing, to have their spirits raised by his compliments, to laugh along with him as he snorted. It is weird to think of what our community will be like now. It certainly will be a different community without him. But, then again, I am certainly a different person because of him. And I am thankful that I had the chance to journey alongside him for the short time that I did.