Today we said farewell to our little Andrea. It was a wonderful celebration of a little girl’s all too short life. It was a remarkable but exhausting day. St. Peter’s Church in Upper Island Cove seats well over 500 people, and it was filled to the brim today. The music, the preaching, and the community were amazing. I offer my thanks to the rector of St. Peter’s for including me in the liturgy. It was so important to Annette and Gary and that means the world to me. As I listened to the beautiful rendering of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by their friend Dwayne, I was drifting off to the last time I was in that church. It was a beautiful July day in 1999, and it was Gary and Annette’s wedding. We had no idea that day what lay ahead for them. I would have never imagined then, that my next visit to that church would be for this young couple to bury a child. Nonetheless, we were there today and we were together, and we were celebrating – even in the midst of sorrow. It was FULL. If that was not remarkable enough, the last two days were. I have no reservations in suggesting that, between Sunday and Monday visitations, nearly 1000 people passed through the doors of the funeral home. What is more remarkable is that there were really no strangers. The sense of love and compassion and genuine concern for our family was wonderful. In the meantime, we continue to receive a number of messages from people in the parish and we so very much appreciate the thoughts and prayers. One of the hymns today happens to be my mother’s favourite – For the Beauty of the Earth. It is really a wonderful hymn as it is a reminder to have gratitude in the midst of all things. As I sang the words of the hymn, many images floated before my eyes. One verse in particular was so very appropriate given the outpouring of love.
For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
I was taken these past few days at how wonderful Gary and Annette were; how strong and how quietly comforting they were to others. This is a testament to how much they love their children and how grateful they are for the love that they receive from them. This verse from that ageless hymn reminds us all that we are a community. The Reverend Bill Strong from St. Peter’s Parish summed it up well when he said that “the community assembled IS the church.” This hymn reminds us that all of us, brothers, sisters, friends with us and friends above, all expressing their thoughts of mild and caring love ARE the church and we have to care for each other. Gary and Annette in their ability to comfort others were remarkable because it really ought to be the other way around. One thing is for certain, those who have seen how much Andrea has been through could not be shattered these past few days. For us there is an inexpressible pain that we had to say goodbye today – but there is a great sense of joy that she has gone to her rest and that her dwelling place is all about light, love and levity, allowing Andrea to laugh the great belly laughs that we used to hear so often. It is the great paradox. We gather together in sorrow to celebrate that joy which we proclaim that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.” If you really want to figure this sentiment out, talk to Leah, Andrea’s big sister who is a whopping seven years of age. She has been told by adults all around that there is a place called heaven and that Andrea has gone there and there is no more sickness for her. So what is her response? – it is simply JOY. She has taken us adults at our word and has spent most of the last few days smiling and reminding us that Andrea is now an angel and that she is with Uncle Jimmie, with Howard and with others who have gone to their rest. Is she nervous and confused? Most likely – I know I am confused by all of this, but at the base of her response is a radical acceptance of the Easter Message – Jesus gave us the gift of the resurrection and Andrea has been given that too.
I wish everybody could have witnessed what I have witnessed for the past three days. Gary and Annette, and indeed their extended families, have shown how strong people can be with the help of family and friends. People forget to be thankful – Gary and Annette would not trade away a day that they had with Andrea. I have complained about the smallest of pains. I have gotten worked up over the silliest of issues. I have not valued the people around me. Today as I placed my hand on Andrea’s casket to say a final farewell – all of those personal insecurities meant nothing.
There are so many thoughts in my mind tonight. With the funeral behind us there is a practical consideration in returning to Windsor and getting back to my parish community for whom I am so grateful. Even yesterday at the funeral home I was struck with the thought of how very fortunate I am to minister is such a caring and loving environment. A woman, who is unknown to me, spoke to me yesterday and remarked that I must be well loved seeing there was a wonderful floral arrangement from St. Mark’s by-the-Lake and another from the Essex Deanery. What could I say but, “I really am fortunate and I really am thankful.” In the meantime I am still processing all that has happened since Friday when we heard of Andrea’s death. It seems like a wild dream in many ways – but standing at the graveside earlier today praying for eternal rest in the freezing cold temperatures (minus 25 with wind chill) was a cold and sobering reminder that this is no dream.
I will spend the next couple of days with family and praying that we have all learned something wonderful from this little girl and from her sister Becky, with whom we will spend some more precious time. Andrea was six, and not only were hundreds and hundreds of people impacted in her community, countless hundreds across the continent were impacted because of her and her sister’s story. Today the Police closed the Highway for the funeral procession to make its way to the cemetery. Seeing the RCMP car with lights flashing really brought a lump in my throat. These girls are so special. There is no mistake about it. I am so glad to have had my life changed by Andrea.