We arrived at the chapel to find Timothy’s casket sitting heavy at the entrance.
This, yesterday morning when we had walked down the familiar green hill to the chapel, the university chapel of dark wood and century-old brick, a place the children have known as Sunday school for some years, a place now to say goodbye to Timothy Mugisha.
The casket was then brought in to the front and we – Timothy’s family and friends – did our best to get through it all, this funeral that was and wasn’t expected. After all, it was just over a week ago when some of us had gathered to see him, just after his 15th birthday.
And while on that day Timothy was just out of hospital in his ongoing fight with cancer, this brave Ugandan boy seemed strong when he smiled and laughed and gave me a thumbs up when I took his photo, a day when he, in his gentle way, behaved like any birthday boy would.
But the spirit can be strong while the body is weak and it was an American neighbour girl, the daughter of a doctor who had worked valiantly for months to prolong Timothy’s life, who on Monday afternoon came to our house with the announcement.
She came like a town crier with the newsflash that Timothy Mugisha is dead, that Timothy died this day, this afternoon, on his bed and did you know, did you know, oh Mr. Froese, did you hear that Timothy Mugisha died on his bed?
Timothy, the calm and courageous African boy who loved to put his hands around a hockey stick and who loved to fold them in prayer at the dinner table and who also loved to put them around other kids, even our Jon, who in this very chapel would go and sit beside Timothy because Jon knew, even when he was as young as two, how good it feels to be held in this boy’s loving spirit.
So we said good-bye, that is ‘God be with you,’ yesterday, and the songs had ended and the ministers had spoken to reassure us that there is another world, another country, an eternal place where Timothy had held a sort of dual-citizenship.
Plenty of people would tell you that it’s a far better place, but plenty aren’t ready to go, at least not if it means leaving today, thank-you, not any more than anyone who has ever been in that beauty would ever want to return to the darkness of here.
At one point everyone, including Liz and Jon and Hannah, had a chance to look down at the open casket , to see Timothy and his gentle face that was somehow less than how we remembered it.
And whatever our kids were missing away from school for a day, it was nothing to what they were learning, that life is a gift and death is imminent and there is a place of paradox, of mystery, even for three white kids in Africa, when the veil between the two is pulled back.
Later the casket, closed and as heavy as ever, was moved again, just a couple of feet from the kids and Jean and I while we offered whatever words me might to Timothy’s mother.
But there wasn’t much more to say because Timothy’s mother had said it all earlier when she got up and told everyone in that chapel what had happened, that before Timothy was laid on his bed, her son, in fact, had died in her arms.
Timothy’s mother – her name is Beatrice – had cried many tears in the preceding hours, but somehow still got up in that moment and shared in a matter-of-fact way about how Timothy just wanted to be near her in those final moments of his life, how he had stood and walked room-to-room in their modest Ugandan house before he finally walked to her and reached his hands up to hug her.
This is when Timothy’s knees gave out one last time, when he said the last words through the last breath that he could push out through his exasperated lungs, the last words anyone would ever hear from him, the words that are more than words, the ones that showed he knew exactly who he was and where he was going, the words “Jesus. Jesus.”
This is how bittersweet it was.
And when we walked away from the chapel and back up the hill to our house, Jon said to me, ‘You mean he died right in her arms? Right in her arms? I thought it only happens this way in the movies.’
The movies, maybe. And real life too.
Real holy life.
And all considered – to die in a loving hug – there is little more than any of us could ever ask.