It’s 1996. A brisk November afternoon in Southern California. Brown leaves skitter across the cemetery grounds, bunching against headstones. Our family has gathered to say goodbye to my uncle Jerry.
I am overseeing this graveside service. As I open my Bible to the text I’ve chosen to share, I look around at our small circle of loved ones, then down at the casket. A deep sadness fills me and a single thought prevails: some people endure far more than their share of pain and struggle.
Jerry was one of six boys, a quiet soul. After a tour in the Army he got married, and shortly afterwards began his descent into mental illness, starting with severe depression. When he sought help at a VA hospital, they submitted him to dozens of shock treatments. The brutal currents ravaged him, permanently rewiring his personality.
For the rest of his life he carried the label “Schizoaffective Disorder.” Heavy doses of Thorazine, Stelazine, and Haldol gradually eroded what was left of him.
I vividly remember Jerry at family events. He was shy, affable, eager to please. He was rarely delusional in conversation, but when you glanced at him from afar, chain smoking cigarettes, you could see his lips moving in dialogue with his inner demons.
As his illness progressed, he would leave home and hitchhike, panhandling across the continent. He would call relatives at ungodly hours, telling us he was at a homeless shelter in some remote city and needed funds for a bus ride home.
Though his wife, Francis, was a saint, their marriage ended. For years he lived with my grandma until his vagrancy left her exhausted. He spent his final days in group homes, some compassionate, others mere human warehouses.
So much pain and struggle.
But the miracle of Jerry was that this crucible of his illness forged a gracious spirit. He was generous and big-hearted, intent on helping those even more unfortunate than he.
Once he visited my home in Las Vegas. Each morning he would bum a few dollars from me, then take to the streets. He said he was going to buy coffee at a nearby restaurant.
One day he didn’t return. Late in the evening, he finally called. Could I pick him up at the Greyhound Station downtown? He was tired and needed a lift.
I parked on the street, scanning the sidewalk and station, finally spotting him through the window of a greasy cafe next door. He was seated with a younger man who looked homeless – unshaven, dirty, a backpack on the chair next to him. Jerry had used my daily donations to not only buy the man a meal, but help him fill a prescription at a nearby drug store. That was my uncle.
Back to the graveside service. Though I’m grateful for Jerry’s witness, I’m heavy with the knowledge of his short life bent by so much pain. I open to Romans 8:26.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words…”