Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
Pay to all what is owed to them:
taxes to whom taxes are owed,
revenue to whom revenue is owed,
respect to whom respect is owed,
honor to whom honor is owed.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other,
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
It’s approaching 11:00, Friday night. The house is a filled with a veritable potpourri of fragrances emanating from the flowers from Alice’s funeral. Flowers on the table, flowers on the piano, flowers on our dresser, flowers on just about any piece of furniture that will hold a basket or a vase. I won’t attempt to put my ignorance of botany on display and name them or give credit to which ones smell nice, other than to say there’s roses, lilies, and lots of other ones that Shelly could identify. I just know they’re pretty. But I can’t really escape the nagging thought that while tonight we’re surrounded by such beauty, in a few days these things will all have wilted away and we’ll have to get rid of them. Seems like the sad echo of an unpleasant song we’ve heard before…
We miss Alice. All of us do. Her absence makes our table feel empty and our dinner conversations lacking the necessary voice to make them complete. One of the kids put a SpongeBob DVD going this evening, maybe more for the familiar background noise now synonymous with Alice than to enjoy the comedic genius. Her death has, predictably and unsurprisingly, left a huge hole in our family. And that’s as it should be.
The week leading up to the funeral was a mixture of having too many things to do, and not enough. Saturday morning we went to the funeral home and started hammering out details for the service. Because this moment didn’t come as a real surprise to us, and Michele and I occasionally talked about it in the days and weeks leading up to it, we had most of the big things cared for, which was helpful. But still, there was a number of things to figure out, decisions to make, and papers to sign. Autopilot took care of most of it.
Our primary aim in putting the service together was to see our faithful God and beloved Alice honored, each in their proper way. We actually didn’t have to do very much because all of the heavy lifting was done by those who loved us. We just kind of laid out our vision for what we wanted, and were surrounded by willing hands and loving hearts who made it all happen.
Over the past months, we often heard the words “If there’s anything I can do, please just tell me!” My most common response became, “I wish there was something you could do; I wish there was something I could do!” That wretched feeling of helplessness that we all felt during the last leg of this journey was hard. But that changed when Alice went to the Palace. Suddenly there was lots to do, we needed lots of help doing it, and that was in some respects refreshing.
My sister-in-law Miranda was in charge of putting pictures together. It’s almost emotional suicide in these moments to relive Alice’s life as one sorts through the thousands of pictures we have of her brief life. Besides, Alice couldn’t take a bad one. She had her mom’s photogenic nature – the camera loved her. Alice’s slide show was 455 pictures and almost 37 minutes long. The first time we watched it at home, we all cried our eyes out. But we’ve found that reliving the happy moments through pictures has helped to recalibrate, to some degree, our memories of her. We don’t want to forget the ugliness of the final weeks of Alice’s life, but neither do we want them to be the only things we remember. And the pictures help sort that out a lot.
My three siblings and I have a (mostly) unofficial but very solemn agreement between us – we don’t parent each other’s kids, and we won’t allow what my sister years ago coined “barf on a biscuit” at each other’s funerals. As if funerals aren’t sad and disappointing enough, only to endure to the end and be rewarded with… ground bologna! It’s like insult to injury. So I knew I could trust Ginny with taking care of the food. She took charge of that, and her and the ladies from Lewis Lake made it happen in a wonderful, kid-friendly, Alice-honoring way. They were amazing; putting together a meal planned for 450 people is hardly a simple affair, but they made it happen. Dickey’s in North Branch did the meat. Rumor has it the owner discovered what the order was for, and went far above and beyond in honor of Alice. We are so thankful. That’s actually one of the last places we bought chicken for Alice, and she really loved it.
Shelly wanted a balloon launch, so we turned that project over to her cousins. Who knew there’s a helium crisis going on in the US? But nothing really stops the Anderson clan from getting the job done, so by hook or crook I suppose I don’t ask and they don’t tell, they made it happen. Watching those 300 balloons float off was incredible, and the kids had a blast sending them off. When we stepped outside the building after the service, Jojo had our family’s balloons in hand and tried to pass them out. I didn’t feel like taking one at the moment so I told him to just hang on to them. It was windy, and by the time we walked from the church door to the graveside, they were so tangled together there was no separating them. So he launched them for all of us. In retrospect, I kind of like the imagery of our family balloons being inseparably bound together by the working of the wind. It’s a metaphor…
Because of the anticipated size of the group, we had been presented with the option of checking into using the school where we did the benefit last year, but Pastor Bob and I both agreed that, inconvenient though it may be, the church is the proper place for something like this. So our dear Lewis Lake family willingly and cheerfully (their modus operandi for service, I should note…) went about the business of getting a building designed to handle 250 people prepared for a gathering of 550. They borrowed chairs from another church, squeezed them in wherever they could, put video feeds together into overflow rooms, and who knows what else. Our offers to help were flatly declined. Maybe behind our back they winked and said that great line from A Bug’s Life, “Help us… don’t help us!”
Thursday morning we arrived at the church about 20 minutes before visitation began, briefly greeted some of our family who had already arrived, made our way to my office to briefly pray, sort of compose ourselves, and then together we made the long march up to see Alice.
She was laid on a pillow and blanket made by her Great-Grandma. She loved it so much and always called it her “Gramma Rosie blanket.” She was wearing her favorite kitty tights, pink shoes, and blue flowery dress. Alice always wore dresses. Cheryl explained to me, “Princesses don’t wear pants.”
I think it was easier to see her than we expected. Michele said the only thing out of line was that her hair was too perfectly done – in life it was always a bit of a mess. So I messed it up just a little, but got scolded for my efforts. I think Shell was secretly happy I did it though, because she looked even more like Alice. It was a precious moment there, all eight of us together one final time. I know it’s proper to say Alice wasn’t there, and while that’s true in one sense, it’s also true that her body is her too, so as Alice might say, she really was there “little bit.”
If honor can be measured by the greatness of the crowd and the greatness of the people in the crowd, and the greatness of the effort to be there, Alice was indeed honored, and we were so happy to see it so. The place was packed, and it was packed with honorable men of God, well-respected businessmen, men and women of great integrity, and pillars of the church and community. Maybe it’s not saying much, but I say there was more honor and dignity attendant at Alice’s funeral in the middle of the sticks in Central Minnesota than a state funeral held in Washington DC.
We often say in moments like these, “it’s a shame we only get together at such a time as this.” But it occurred to me on Thursday that not many moments are worth making the effort required to be together. It’s hard to set work aside for a day and sometimes multiple days in order to be present at such an event. But so many did. And great men and great women, people of high stature not simply in our hearts, but the eyes of everyone, made their way to pay respect to our Alice. We were so deeply moved, and she was greatly honored. It did my Daddy’s heart much good.
For almost two hours, Michele and I stood near Alice greeting, hugging, sometimes crying with family and friends. They were precious moments for us, and each person infused a little joy or very sweet and fitting sadness into our hearts. I lifted some of Alice’s young friends up so they could see her, and thanked them for loving her and being her friend. That was, to me, one of the highest honors of my day. We still didn’t get to see everyone, and not everyone got to see Alice, and that’s a bummer. But how great to greet childhood friends, people I’ve worked with, people we’ve ministered to and with, friends, and family. The day was a wonderful mixture of the sadness of separation and the joy of reunion. I suppose another metaphor.
Just before the service began, my kids once again assembled with Michele and I before Alice’s little bed, we pulled the blanket over her little body and tucked her in one last time, Shelly folded a corner so it looked just perfect, and Jojo and I closed the lid.
Ivan Fiske read Rev. 21:1-7 with a voice and a passion that can only come from the heart of a man who actually believes what he’s reading. My Dad delivered a beautiful, God-centered eulogy, the pastor in him making much of Jesus and the Papa in him making much of Alice. At our request, Ben and Rachel came from Michigan to sing, and they did so beautifully. My Grandparents weren’t able to attend, but they had seats reserved just behind us, so we gave one to one of my oldest friends, the one and only Bear. How his tears honored our girl, and how our hearts were uplifted to hear that famously rich and powerful voice singing with us and the congregation, “Day by day, and with each passing moment, Strength I find to meet my trials here, Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, I’ve no cause for worry or for fear…”
Pastor Bob invited all the kids up to the stage where he visited with them about “old things that wear out, and new things that are broken.” These are incredibly powerful moments in the hearts of kids, to be carefully and properly handled, and they really were. I couldn’t believe how many kids were there, it was super cool. As they were coming off the stage, one little girl came up to Bob and said, “But I didn’t get to see Alice!” She was heartbroken, and I was for her. I wanted to oblige her, but it just seemed improper, so I just enjoyed as Bob kindly told her we’d have to wait until we would see her another day.
We raised the roof with “In Christ Alone,” and Bob preached about the death that glorifies God. It was just wonderful, and we were so pleased.
After the benediction, we followed Alice as she was wheeled out, lifted by our brothers, our dads, and Pastor Ivan into the coach. We walked behind as she was driven around the building to the cemetery, where those wonderful and honorable men once again lifted her up, and carried her to her resting place. We stood there as wave after wave of people followed us around the building, a wonderfully huge crowd gathered around such a little box. We released the balloons, Bob spoke briefly, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and once again committed her little soul and body into the hands of the only One who ever could help her, and ultimately the only One who can help us.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and we lingered around the grave, sharing more hugs and more pleasant words with those we love and who love us. I finally got to meet Pam, the dear lady who weekly mailed Alice a box or boxes full of gifts, which she always tailored to fit Alice’s changing condition. She’s brilliant. I dearly wish Pam could have met Alice and seen how much joy she brought to her. The love of this lady for my daughter she never met was so moving.
It occurred to me sometime this week that from the moment I carried Alice’s body out of our house and lay her down in the back of that shiny black van almost one week ago to the hour, she was always in the hands and under the care of people who knew and loved our family. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with the funeral director and his assistants, the man who dug her grave attends Lewis Lake, and of course Alice even sleeps in a bed made by her Daddy and her uncles. Somehow it was a comforting thought that she was never in the hands of strangers.
In a rather unexpected twist of events, the only stranger that eventually did happen to enter the equation was the fellow who was in charge of lowering her bed into the ground, in common parlance “the vault guy.” Due to his not realizing this was a shorter box, the straps used to lower her were set up too far apart. So there was a bit of labor involved resetting the rigging used to lower her down. No doubt he was, like other professionals would be, overjoyed to have to try to correct his mistake in front of and with the assistance of Alice’s family and friends (just a little sympathetic sarcasm). But it was actually really meaningful to me to be a part of helping with the last 6 feet of her journey.
The concrete lid of the vault makes a rather ominous sound when it literally slams into place. But it’s just lying there, not fastened down. I didn’t put a latch on the lid of her bed either. I suspect she’ll just float up through it, but in the event that on resurrection day she decides to push her way out, maybe she’ll smile when she realizes her Daddy made it as easy as possible to escape that thing. Or maybe she’ll roll her eyes and think I was in too much of a hurry.
Alice and I used to play a game where I’d hide my wedding ring or piece of candy in one of my hands and she would guess which hand it was in. I’m not joking, I bet she was right 90% of the time. To this day I don’t know how she did it, but it always amazed me. Then she would put my ring in her hand and say in a musical way, “Which one?” and if I guessed right, as quick as she could, she would put her hands behind her back and switch the ring to the other one, put them forward again, and triumphantly open her empty hand. It was a losing game for me, and I loved it. I’ll miss it a lot. I already do.
We don’t know what life will be like for us going forward. Sorrowing yet rejoicing, I expect. We’re still in the process of feeling a hundred different and conflicting things all at once. I like to say that if we had to go through the last 8-1/2 months all over again, there’s some things we would do differently, but we have no regrets. As best we were able, we have mentally prepared for this day while hoping we’d never see it. We hoped God wouldn’t take her, but I don’t think either of us would say that we are surprised that he did. We don’t know why He did, and the good that we’ve seen come of it hasn’t yet equaled what we think she’s worth, but we know that one day we will be vindicated when we say that he does all things well.
More than anything in the world, I want my kids, all of them, to spend eternity in the joyous presence of the Lord Jesus. I care far less how we all get there than that we get there. Alice made it. Counting her miscarried siblings, for us that’s five there, five to go. God bring the rest of us safely home. The other kids are doing so well and have made us both so very proud. They’re the best, and while they have been bent over and bowed down while being battered by this storm, for them and for us the saying is true, “A bruised Reed He will not break.” (zing!) Turns out God never promised us as smooth sailing as we might have desired. But the promises he has made us have so far been well kept.
He gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Top photo was taken unbeknownst to me at our house by my sister-in-law Miranda on Alice’s 4th birthday, the day after diagnosis. It’s one of my favorites and I’ve waited until a special time to share it. This seems about right.
Thank you to all of you who have followed this journey with us and encouraged us along the way. If you’ll endure it, I have a few other things to write concerning my thoughts on all our unanswered prayers for Alice and my reasons for believing she is with Jesus. For tonight, here are a couple simple parting gifts.
I’ve posted Alice doing Psalm 23 before, but here it is again:
Here’s a little bedtime conversation we had back in December. It gives a little taste of her personality and sense of humor. She always called mustaches “marshmallows.”
The balloon launch can be seen here