When you move into a new community, you don’t automatically know who the pillars are in that society. But after a while, you learn. You lean on them, even when you don’t realize you are doing so. And when something happens to knock that pillar down, it suddenly feels like everything else is less stable and more likely to falter.
I remember being a freshly minted teenager the first time I met Farmer Tom. I know he has aged in the last twenty-plus years, and I certainly know he struggled with his fair share of health issues. From what I know, he never had an easy life, but he always had cheer and hospitality and gumption enough to go around. I recall the sidewise glance, almost a sneer, he gave my dad over his crossed-arms when we first bought the property across the dusty dirt road from Farmer Tom’s place, tucked back just behind the overgrown old cemetery. “Whatcha wanna do with all them acres?” This was in the days before good old Y2K and people from places like Seattle and California were tucking tail and running to the hills… and once they realized they didn’t need bunkers and solar powered generators, their plans were often to subdivide and make suburban villages out in the sticks. Like where we just collected ourselves over one hundred acres of beautiful field and forest.
My dad, who literally never met a stranger in his life, smiled and said, “I want to live in the country with my wife and kids, and have a place for friends and family to put down roots. I want to grow old here with grandkids.” I don’t know if those were exactly his words, but that was definitely his sentiment. I’m sure it came with a belly full of joy and a loud sigh of gratitude from my dad. And I am beyond positive that it came with a whoop, a holler, and a hearty handshake to follow from dear old Farmer Tom.
We have been neighbors ever since.
But yesterday our Farmer Tom died. As Simeon said today at lunch, “it sounds better to say he passed out.” Until he was corrected by an older brother who said, “that just means fainted, so it’s not the same thing. It’s not accurate and not true.” “Oh,” said my Simeon. “It just doesn’t sound right to say he died.”
And he’s right. Farmer Tom passed away.
Our neighbor died. And our hearts are sorrowing.
The saddest part is that, as far as we know, he died without Jesus. And I think it has been decades since I have experienced the loss of someone I don’t expect to see again and to embrace in glory. It is a very empty feeling. Death without life on the other side. How do people even begin to cope with that? I can’t wrap my head around it.
The last time I saw Farmer Tom was through his family room window. My daughter and I had walked over with a bag of home baked goodies. Bread and cookies and candied pecans. I chatted with Mrs. K on the patio while snowflakes swirled behind my back and my daughter tugged on my mittened hand. I remember her saying, “Mommy, there’s Farmer Tom” as she pointed to the window on our left. We smiled at him through the pane and waved. I had no idea that would be our last glimpse of him. Weeks ago.
Our field is the home to his cows every summer. His field is where we often wave to him, watching him ride around on his tractor. Unshaven face, eyes that never stop smiling, a grin full of gaps that you can’t help but love. Denim overalls and dirty grey hair, big tan hands covered in motor grease.
Any time anything happens in our little farming community, Farmer Tom would know instantaneously. I never have figured out how. Five minutes into a local tragedy — fire, ice storm, power outage, blocked roads, newly dug grave in the cemetery — you could just call him up, and he could give you all the news. You had a community question, Farmer Tom would have the answer and point you in the right direction.
His kids still live on either side of his place. And I know Mrs. K is still there. Bless her heart. I am sure I will see her out with the goats soon. It is kidding season. And I will look forward to watching her kneel in her bountiful garden, kerchief on her head, sun on her neck, all summer. And I hope there are still cows to come live in my field.
I can’t remember a day when Farmer Tom hasn’t been just across the dusty old road. A phone call away. With all the guttural laughter and local gossip you could ask for.
Now I imagine the next hole dug in our cemetery will be for him. And the community will totter a bit without him.
Because that’s what happens when you lose a pillar.
But thankfully his legacy of grit and cheer and determination and tradition will stick around. We will still lean on him. On his memory.
But I can’t believe he’s gone.
Lord, have mercy upon us and grant us Your peace.