As children, Don and I would often walk together to Sunday school at a neighborhood Baptist church about a mile from our home. We departed each Sabbath wearing shiny black, leather shoes that our father had polished for us the night before. In our Bibles we carried envelopes with our offering, usually a dime. Even though I never remember praying with my brother, I’m sure we both did when we were alone.
After reaching adulthood, getting married and starting families, Don and I joined the same United Methodist Church. We also attended the same Sunday school class with our wives. When our mother became a member of our church as well, we proudly claimed a pew of our own in the sanctuary for the 11:00 worship service. Our mother would faithfully arrive early each Sunday to ensure that the third pew from the front, on the right side of the church, was not usurped by some other family.
Don didn’t just attend Sunday school and church. He also served. Don and Lisa taught Sunday school classes at different times and also kept the 3 year old nursery for many years. The children loved my brother as much as Don loved them. Whether there were four little ones in the room or fourteen, Don always had an uncanny knack for keeping them interested. With 3 year olds that was no simple task, but for Don it just seemed to come naturally.
In the sanctuary, on days when Don and Lisa weren’t keeping the nursery, Don would garner the attention of any youngster who sat in proximity to our pew. Before the service began, Don placated many an unruly toddler with a variety of antics, most notably with his nearly famous, invisible frog. The croaking sound that resonated from Don’s clenched hands not only calmed the fidgety child, but quite often piqued the curiosity of unsuspecting adults. On other occasions, Don would draw a funny picture for the disruptive child. Whether Don displayed a seven dwarf lookalike caricature, or moved his hands to imitate a contemplative frog, he always seemed to soothe the child’s discomfort and to bring some much needed relief to the somewhat embarrassed parent as well.
About once every two or three months Don would also deliver the children’s sermon. In the Methodist church, children in attendance from the ages of 4 to about 10 are invited to come to the altar to hear a brief message prepared specifically for them. The children of our church loved the Sundays that Mr. Don did the children’s sermon. Quite often he would relate the Bible message to the outdoors, sometimes bringing in pictures of wildlife or some other part of nature. Don loved Christ and showed the children how Jesus loved them.
After Don was diagnosed with ALS he still attended church with Lisa for as long as he could. At first he walked into the sanctuary gingerly, using a cane. Later Lisa or I wheeled him in in a wheelchair. Even after he had lost all of his mobility in both legs and the use of his right hand, he managed to maneuver his power chair by using his quickly diminishing left hand. As he sat at the end of our pew, somewhat slumped and in pain, the children would still come by to see Mr. Don. It saddened my brother beyond description when he could no longer draw the funny pictures or produce the croaking frog which had been requested.
On one of the last Sundays that my brother attended church, he brought with him a collection of shiny, new matchbox cars for a few of the little boys that had grown so fond of him. He let them examine the cars before each was allowed to make a selection. His gift to each of them exemplified a final act of kindness. And my brother Don was among the kindest and gentlest of Christian men.
Before his illness, Don could often be seen striding down the church’s corridors, camouflaged covered Bible in hand. During the worship service Don opened his Bible and followed along with the minister’s sermon. After his illness, the same Bible laid open on his lap as he listened to the pastor deliver his message. When his hands no longer worked, Don’s eyes and ears still did.
As Don’s disease progressed he never lost his faith. Every evening he and Lisa would have a devotional time together. During the last few days of my brother’s life, I had the privilege of sharing these special times with them. When our pastors came to visit, Don always appreciated their thoughtful compassion and the prayers they lifted up on his behalf as well as for his family. Throughout those final weeks, he reminded all who came to visit to “Read your Bible and pray.”
One day a couple of months before Don’s death, I said to him that I thought my faith had increased as a result of his illness. He replied, “I think all of ours has.” He was right. Even though we were all losing a man that we so dearly loved, we held to our faith as we knew that he wanted us to. Don had said to me one day shortly after his diagnosis, “I’m not afraid to die; I just worry about what the dying process will do to those I love.” Even after being told that he had little time to live, Don always thought of others above himself. Losing my brother was difficult, but as he struggled with a horrific disease, I and everyone in our family knew that Don’s life was in the hands of God. And what better place can we hope that our lives will be, if we too, live like my brother Don, as a man of faith.