On July 3, 2012, eight days before my friend Jay Williams turned 32 years old, he was buried in Lebanon Cemetery in Plains, Georgia. The air was still and thick with southern humidity, and sweat collected in the small of my back under the layers of my black dress. My friends and I stood on the brittle grass of the cemetery, waiting in line to say goodbye to Jay one last time. We dodged the sun by shuffling in and out of each other’s shadows and swatted at clouds of gnats with paper fans provided by the local funeral home.
In the summer of 2010, Jay, myself, and 15 other people rode our bicycles from San Diego to Myrtle Beach, raising money and awareness for an organization that empowers people to fight the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa. Jay was the first cyclist to arrive at the church that would send us off. As I pulled into the church parking lot in San Diego, I saw a short, skinny guy with a tan wearing a straw cowboy hat riding his red bicycle in circles. Was he one of the team cyclists? Or some vagabond traveler who perhaps illegally acquired a nice road bike? Was he drunk? He looked so happy—too happy.
Quickly, we learned he was one of our teammates. While the rest of us worried if our gear would hold up or how we’d survive cycling nine hours a day in 110-degree weather, Jay was content to cycle the 3000 miles we traveled cross-country in Teva sandals, occasionally strapping a milk jug of water to the back of his bike so he wouldn’t have to stop. Even without clipping into pedals or using recovery drinks (he preferred chocolate milk), Jay was the strongest on our team. He wasn’t competitive, though; he’d stop and help someone change out a blown tube or, in his South Georgia accent, would cheer up a teammate having an unpleasant day.
As we got to know Jay, we learned he was in a skiing accident when he was a teenager. After extensive surgery that caused his abdominal muscles to be separated and required him to lose a kidney, he was back on the slopes the next winter. Considering the doctors told him he’d be lucky to walk again, this was only one small miracle in Jay’s life. Jay was brave. Jay was humble. It seemed like Jay was invincible. He quickly and quietly became everybody’s unlikely hero.
After tornadoes ripped through the south in spring 2011, I volunteered at a benefit concert in Birmingham, Alabama. Jay drove four hours from Plains, Georgia, to help me sell T-shirts for two hours. Then he drove four hours back so he could be at his job on time the next morning. This wasn’t atypical. This was Jay. By day, he worked in his father’s peanut factory and by night, secretly repaired friends’ houses when they were on vacation. He loved Jesus, and to everyone who knew him, he never had to say a word to prove it. His actions proved this love beyond any shadow of doubt.
On June 29, 2012, when the team received the news that Jay fell two stories and was fighting for his life, none of us could believe it. Twenty-four hours later, Jay passed away due to the trauma caused by his fall.
Sadly, Jay was not the first of my friends to pass last year. Two others have unexpectedly died: one in a tragic hiking accident in Japan and another after an arduous battle with cancer. I began to wonder if, as a 33-year-old, death simply becomes a more frequent notification or if last year has been an anomaly. Thinking on these things, my chest tightens and my breathing becomes shallow and quick. I’m faced with the reality of my own transience now; death has been speaking into my consciousness more repeatedly than usual.
Most of the cycling team was able to make it to Georgia for Jay’s funeral. We stayed in two guest homes on a farm in the tiny town of Ellaville. None of us knew the family who owned the farm before we arrived. They heard we were coming, and they opened their doors. They loved Jay, and they loved Jesus, and because of this, they loved us.
Alone in one of the houses while waiting for our ride to the visitation, I sat in the living room with the book I was reading. After attempting to understand the same sentence four times, I gave up and stared off into the smoke-stained fireplace in front of me, listening to the sounds that filled the house: water dripping from the kitchen faucet, songs of crickets and the rustle of leaves as squirrels jumped around in the heavy woods. In my hasty packing, I forgot to bring a pen. I searched the cottage and found a pencil and scribbled in the back of my book:
When someone in our periphery dies, it gives our spirits pause. A moment of silence. But when someone close—a kindred spirit—passes, our reality becomes surreality. We float through a new and different kind of time and space, and our bodies feel the loss of a bright soul that no longer walks with us. The air, the sounds, the light … all is different when someone departs. When they became part of us, they implanted a small piece of their spirit in our own. And when they leave, there is such pain from the empty space that spirit used to fill. This is grief.
During the days of Jay’s visitation and funeral, grief was loud. It was in the eyes of the 200 people who lined up in the heat to say goodbye to him and console his parents and his girlfriend. It spoke into the quiet moments in conversations as we spoke of Jay’s memory. It was in the tears of his friends as they touched his casket before it was lowered.
However, as loud as grief was, joy was louder. It seems incredibly trite to write those words; it feels as cliché as saying, “He’s in a better place now” or “God just wanted one of his angels home.” But joy outsang grief, and its notes ring just as beautifully today as they did last year. Joy sings of a life lived bravely and with love. Joy sings of friendships created and renewed. Joy sings of every minute someone spent with Jay. In the moments where grief is raw and bleeding, joy reaches in with peace and hope. It is not intrusive or overpowering. It is constant and gently comforts our sorrow. In the space this mercy offered us, we could mourn and celebrate.
July 12, 2012 marks the day Jay was buried. New concerns and mundane tasks seem to lessen the time I think of his death. Distractions threaten to numb the sensitivity to life and community and love I experienced so intensely almost a year ago. It’s effortless to let death, grief, and the overwhelming joy it paradoxically brings move away from our hearts. Our culture demands we must get over it—life goes on—but with intentional determination, maybe we have an alternative choice.
Yes, we must accept life and death, just as we must accept grief and joy. There is a season for all things. But instead of moving on from the things death awakens in us, perhaps we embrace them. Perhaps we choose to keep the mark a life leaves on our heart unhealed and open and, by doing so, we create space for others to experience the legacy of love and joy a departed friend leaves behind.
Can there, in fact, be joy in holding on to grief?