I miss my friend Lee. Although I continue to grieve, the worst of it has passed and I think it’s time to write for him. I hope that someday his daughter might find this post, and find some comfort here.
This is a difficult post to write for a number of reasons, but the trickiest part is to walk a careful line where I can be authentic and honest without compromising privacy. Lee confided in me; I know so much about his history, his issues and challenges, his hopes and dreams. It would be very therapeutic for me to finally bring out into the open some events and issues that made (and make) me very angry. I would, too, I really would – except that during the last long conversation that we had, the major topic was forgiveness.
He was in his 40s, and his inability to let go of the hurt in his past had been so damaging to himself and others for so long. We talked a lot about his daughter. She was the bright star in his life – he loved her so much – and we talked a lot about how his healing was tied to his ability to care for her, and to be the kind of father he wanted to be for her. One thing that really seemed to help was for him to imagine that the things he experienced were happening to her. Once the situation was transferred to someone he loved, he could finally see that someone who would behave hurtfully toward a child has deep problems of their own. He could even start to empathize – enough to stop blaming himself for everything that happened.
There was a lot of hurt and anger in Lee, but I am comforted by the thought that I really do think he was able to start authentically forgiving. More than that, I think he was even able to feel compassion, and to see the cycle, and even to disrupt it. He was capable of insight and of meta-thought and of imagination, but he was so hurt – so deeply and emotionally bone-tired and hurt – that it was only later in life that he even could bear to talk about it. A true friend is sometimes almost as good as a therapist. The safe place to talk – was with me. I’m honored that he trusted me that much.
But I’m starting at the end of the story. Once again, from the beginning this time…
Burnam Lee McCoubrey III (everyone called him Lee) and I were part of a Kingdom Hall community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I first tried to write this post, it veered off into remembering things that affected both of us just because of that, but I’ll try to keep to issues that are important only to our friendship this time. It was just as we were hitting adolescence that I remember him appearing as a figure in my life. At that time, my father was no longer an elder, and my parents had divorced and remarried. His father was an elder, one of the few that I trusted because he had a sense of humor and a loving heart. His mother – well, she always seemed to dislike me, for whatever reason, but she was a pillar of the community and not to be trifled with.
Lee himself was withdrawn, quiet. He was very pale in complexion, and when he was miserable it was transparently obvious. Still, there was something about Lee. If there was only a single ray of sunshine, he would seek it out. He had a core of innocence that never went away. Often he reminded me of Opie – not so much the later Ron Howard – but really Opie Taylor. I wished that he could have had that Mayberry world.
Once, his father was seriously injured. The men and older boys were playing some sort of game, perhaps touch football, and he fell and hit his head on a rock. It appeared that he probably had a concussion. Everyone panicked, and they were loosening his belt (I still don’t know why they do that), and trying to get him to respond. He was taken to the hospital.
Meanwhile, no-one seemed to remember Lee. He looked terrified. He’d gone ghost-white, and was sitting by himself, dazed. I went and sat down next to him. He often talked about that day, and how much it helped that I just sat there with him, not saying much, just being near. Somehow it made him feel that everything was going to be all right. I wish now that I would have hugged him, but at the time it was really unthinkable to do that.
We were still too young to date – even among other JWs – when we decided that we had a mutual crush going on. Basically, this meant that there was something to look forward to at those endless meetings – we could say shy hellos and give each other bashful smiles.
After a while, we got permission to talk with one another on the telephone. He was so so sooo shy. For the first few conversations, he had no idea what to say to me. So he read aloud the text from the back of Beach Boys record albums. He loved the Beach Boys. Eventually, we started to really talk. It was much easier on the telephone than in person, especially with everyone in the congregation monitoring us all the time. We would tell each other about bugs and rocks and plants, and how comforting and safe it felt to be among trees. He always told me that I was beautiful and kind and funny – especially funny. At a time when I was very insecure and very often sad myself, we cheered each other up.
Well, things move on. Sadly, I dumped him. Unceremoniously. With the fickleness of youth, I had a crush on another boy, and the year of Lee and Heidi was over. He was mad at me, and hurt of course, and it took a while to admit that we actually still liked each other and could be friends. I knew he still liked me “that way” though, and a couple of years later, I did give him a kiss. It was in jest, almost a dare (I was in a time of some confusion). I didn’t know until about a year ago that it had been his first kiss. We never held hands, or went out alone on a date, or anything like that. Just the one kiss – but it was a good one (smile).
Lee was third generation. Not only his father, but also his grandfather, were Jehovah’s Witness elders. In high school, I started to hear that Burnam was saying bad things about me, and I was shocked. I felt so betrayed! My lack of understanding on how or why that could possibly be the case gave me unaccustomed courage and I confronted him with what I had been told. His face fell, and he searched my eyes – something no other elder had done. “But I didn’t, Heidi,” he said – his voice breaking. Later I discovered that it was Lee’s grandfather – someone I’d only met briefly, occasionally – who was the one who had somehow developed a very bad impression of my “dangerousness” – not Lee’s dad at all. I went to him at the next meeting, and apologized profusely. Presumably, he investigated the thing – I don’t know, we never spoke of it again. Lee wouldn’t talk about it. But it wasn’t long after that when I was accused of many things that didn’t actually happen. Ahh, the rumor mill of malicious gossip.
What I remembered, though, was that Lee’s father was the only elder who treated me as a full person. He talked to me honestly and respectfully. I think it was the death of Lee’s dad that prompted Lee to find me again. He needed to talk, and to remember.
I couldn’t believe that he had forgotten the best and funniest thing that had ever happened, the day that Bernie got a little creative.
He was giving a talk on what it means, scripturally, to be a righteous man, and he had an idea for how to set it up. So we’re sitting at the Kingdom Hall meeting, and suddenly through the speakers – “Body, body, wanna feel my body, body” – the opening for “Macho Man” (video) by the Village People!
First of all, I can’t begin to explain the shock. It’s the only time I ever heard any other music than canned recordings of the “Kingdom songs” at the Hall. Then – OBVIOUSLY he had NO IDEA that the Village People were gay. None. None at all, or it would have been an entirely different sort of talk.
And then – Bernie comes strutting up to the podium, flexing his biceps and bouncing to the music. I thought I was going to pee my pants. It was one of the very few times that I remember where almost everyone was roaring with laughter.
“Is that what it means to be a man – being ‘macho'”?
Wow – it was hard to settle down to the scriptures after that. It did make the point, and it was perfect, but… well, someone must have enlightened the parental units. Lee was made to destroy much of his album collection that day. When we talked about it, we got almost hysterical with laughter, until he remembered the aftermath.
“But Lee, dear – you decide – was it worth it?” He thought about it for a couple of heartbeats, then started laughing again. “Yes. Yes, Heidi. It really was. Thank you. That’s one of the best memories of my Dad – that was so cool. It was worth it.”
Lee had lots of hard times, and sometimes it was as a result of bad choices, but I knew Lee really well – he had reasons to want and even need his escape vectors. Like most JWs, he never got to go to college, and he seriously injured his back some years back. He got addicted to the painkillers and had to go through a lot to get off of them, finally. He had financial troubles, too – he didn’t manage his meager funds very well. His love life was always a disaster area – I might have been the only woman that he really trusted.
His daughter – oh! Molly was the sun and the moon to him. He was so proud of her. He wouldn’t have wanted to abandon her, but to love and protect her always.
Lee was so hungry for caring and love and joy and laughter. Whenever he could be with a group of people, it made him so happy. He would open up. And when he opened up – oh, what magic! As he got older, the Opie side of him never quite went away but more and more he reminded me of Dan Akyroyd (especially as the character Joe Friday in the 1987 movie Dragnet). There was a slight physical resemblance, but more that that – the combination of abruptness, dry humor, and – yes, even then – a slightly naive kind of openness and innocence. I would have loved to have seen Lee decked out like a Blues Brother – just once.
Recently, he had attended a JW assembly with this mother. It meant a lot to her that he go to the thing. He said that he was still able to get something from it – he still believed in God – and that it meant so much to her that he couldn’t refuse her. I thought it was a very giving thing. <3 We talked about the JWs a lot. Over and above the doctrines and all, the thing that had most bothered both of us – going way back – was the way that legalism was more important than kindness. I hope that if any Jehovah's Witnesses read this, that you might try – just try – to be a little kinder and less petty and judgmental with your brothers and sisters. Follow the way of love and compassion, even “loving-kindness” – and especially, please be kind to the children. You’re already asking a lot from them. Be kind. Be loving. Be true. It matters. They – and you – don’t have to be perfect, don’t need to be perfect, can’t possibly be perfect. Do the best you can, and trust in love. Be kind to one another. As an adult, Lee was only very nominally part of the JW community, primarily to avoid being cut off from his mother. His memory is not authentically honored by contributing to the community that so often treated him badly. Even at the funeral, I’m told that there was one older man who, bible in hand, intimated that Lee had brought his death upon himself. I didn't go to the funeral. It would have been very difficult to travel there in time - as a former JW, I strongly suspect I wouldn't have been welcome anyway. Lee was gone, and I didn't think I could get - or offer - much comfort there. Lee died from complications of a preventable hospital staph infection. These deadly infections have affected the lives of several people that I know, and Lee is the second death among my close family and friends. In both cases, children were left fatherless. Lee worked for many years caring for others in a hospital setting, and it seems appropriate to me to honor his own real service and to work against this type of preventable death.
So while the official family request “in lieu of flowers” was for contributions to the local Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, I would ask you to consider contributing to (or taking action for) a higher standard of hospital care. Please visit some of these sites and/or doing something to support this cause:
- Campaign for Better Care: http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cbc_index
- Healthcare Association Infection (HAI) Watch: http://www.haiwatch.com/
- MRSA News: http://worldmrsaday.org/category/news-pr
- Safe Healthcare, hosted by CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion: http://blogs.cdc.gov/safehealthcare/
- Drug-resistant bacteria found in half of U.S. meat: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/15/health/main20054211.shtml
- FDA clears first test to quickly diagnose and distinguish MRSA and MSSA: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm254512.htm
Finally – to respond to Lee’s last text message to me (and how I wish I had called him back immediately): I love you, too, and I always have. You are in my thoughts and daily meditations and, if there is an afterlife, I hope that you have – at last – found your endless summer. <3
This one’s for you:
“Catch a Wave” – The Beach Boys