Sunday, June 20, 2010

Andy Lester

Andrew Lester died June 10, one day after my brother-in-law. I had hoped his memorial service would be held later, but I was still in South Carolina (where I needed to be) when everyone gathered to remember what he had meant to them.
Andy was my dissertation supervisor, my teacher/mentor, officiator at my wedding, and my friend. He and Judy were planning to move to North Carolina and I remember his telephone call to me, letting me know about their plans. He said he wanted me to know because "You and I have always had such a special connection, Katherine."
We had talked on several previous occasions about our 'connection,' and it had to do with us both having an existentialist orientation to life. We were both passionate about authenticity, freedom and responsibility, life/death, anxiety, isolation/community, and meaning.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer not long after that phone call. Their house had sold surprisingly quickly, so he and Judy had to move into an apartment while he received treatment. That saddened me; they had a beautiful home. I don't know exactly how long it was from when he was diagnosed to when he died; a year, or perhaps a bit longer.
I remember once in a seminar class, he had asked us to read an article about "master narratives." All of my colleagues critiqued the article, saying that from their postmodern perspective master narratives didn't exist; our identities are created anew each day through social construction. I saw their point, but I spoke up in disagreement because as I had read the article I knew my own 'master narrative.'
"Tell us, Katherine," Andy said.
"Uh, oh, well...," I stammered. My intention had not been to tell that story -- Andy surprised me in so many ways through the years, inviting me, in one way or another, to honor the Authentic Katherine.
I was maybe 19 years old and on break from college. My parents lived in Houston then. On this particular evening, my mother had already gone to bed leaving me alone with my father. I was sitting in a chair in the living room reading a book, I think. He was only slightly drunk and he came over and sat on the couch and said, "So, Katy, where is your life going?"

Where is my life going... Deep anxiety flooded through me. I froze and could only manage to slightly shrug my shoulders in response. He looked away and eventually said, "Yeah. I know. I was never captain of my own ship either."

As the years went on, that little exchange with my father served as a major gift and, indeed, as a 'master narrative' for me. It taught me in the most powerful way that I MUST become the 'captain of my own ship.' My God, I couldn't go through life and end up, at 60, thinking I'd never acted as agent of my own life! No! No! No!
As I finished that story I looked at Andy, and OH!, I'll never forget his face. He was smiling at me and nodding his head in affirmation. My eyes fill with tears now, thinking of it. He was so proud of me. That's what I read into his smile and his nod: Oh dear God, this man I love and respect so much is proud of me! He saw me becoming, and in some ways as already, the captain of my own ship.
It meant the world.
When I asked him to officiate at my wedding I was pretty sure he would say Yes, and he did. But he surprised me with a question also: Katherine, I can only do this if you've thought through the implications for justice. I think I responded with something like "yes of course," and he said 'great' and quickly went on to some nuts-and-bolts questions. He knew that the question would linger in my mind. In what ways, in the excitement of falling in love and planning a wedding, would I tend to give my power away?--that's what he wanted me to think through, I'm sure, because he knew that ongoing sub-story of mine: letting my God-given empowerment dissipate. It remains a hugely important question for me to keep in mind.
Andy was someone I felt the freedom to always be myself around, and at the same time, not. I know I had him on a pedastal as this "father-figure extraordinaire." I wish I could've related to him as an equal more often than I did. He invited that in so many ways.
Well, it's a small regret, really. The main thing is how utterly grateful I am, and will always be, that Andy Lester was part of my life. Being in his presence was sheer gift because, as his obituary said, he was a man who provided "unconditional love." What response can anyone have to that except utter gratitude?
I have always thought that no human being could provide 'unconditional love,' and I've always asked my clients/parishioners to think about that more deeply when they make such a declaration. But when I read that in Andy's obituary, written by his family members I'm sure, I knew it was an accurate statement, arising, I believe, from his amazing commitment to Jesus Christ and his dedication to increasing in spiritual maturity. Andy Lester was a man who walked the earth with a deep assurance in his soul that God was with him--guiding, healing, sustaining, reconciling, and liberating him. It's that kind of assurance that gives us the freedom to love others so well.
Two of my Ph.D. colleagues contacted me upon learning of Andy's death. Duane called me that morning to make sure I'd heard the news, then he emailed me. His email ended with "We stand on the shoulders of a giant." Oh, how true. Andy's work is hugely respected in the field of pastoral counseling and pastoral theology. He broke new ground in narrative theory and hope, and an incredible pastoral theology of anger. Not to mention his books on marriage and on children. It was a beautiful reminder to me, that we his students stand on Andy's giant shoulders as pastoral theologians, counselors, and caregivers. A feeling for me of both humility and celebration.
And Linda's email brought tears to me eyes. She commented on how I had been in her thoughts since the moment she learned he was on hospice. She wrote of the "closeness and significance" of my relationship with him and her certainty that his death would "leave a hole" in my heart. You're right, Linda. So right. And for all of us in our own ways... I'm thinking now of another friend and student of Andy's, M., who mentioned a couple of times to me how she wished one of us could speak to Andy and learn from his wisdom about this process of dying. I think we all assume that this process of letting go was something he experienced with sadness, but grace and a loved-filled peace as well.
The last time I saw Andy and Judy was about 3 weeks before he died. They had come again to one of the "Sacred Conversations" gatherings at my church. He was very pale, and I knew he had recently had to increase his pain medication. As they left, we embraced and I'm pretty sure I said, "I love you." Even if I didn't actually say that out loud, I know he knew it.
He's with God now.
But, of course, he always was.


Robin said...

Katherine, I am so sorry for this huge loss in your life. I have someone like this in mine, and your words of honor and remembrance and sorrow and love ring true. I am sorry, also, that the timing prevented your being encircled by the friends who knew him, too. What a grace his friendship was, and what a hole this leaves in your life.

Mompriest said...

This reflection is a tribute to your love for him, and surely, the love he returned. May the memories of him be a gift to you always, may he live on in how you remember him.

Katherine E. said...

Robin, Terri,
Thank you both.

Mary Beth said...

I love this beautiful tribute to a beautiful person. Thank you for sharing him with us. May your sorrow and that of others who loved him be tempered with the joy of who he was and continues to be to you.

Katherine E. said...

Thank you, Mary Beth.

RJ said...

Your homage to your friend, mentor and colleague is so heart-felt. I am strengthened and saddened by your loss. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

Jan said...

Katherine, thank you for sharing about this important person in your life. Love endures forever. But what a hole you have in your life. Love to you.

PS I'm glad you saw Judy!

Rev SS said...

So sorry for your loss ... and so happy for you that you were blessed with this person in your life

Carolyn said...

Katherine,thank you for sharing this tribute to Andy. The story of his response to your father's comment pictures vividly his love and impact upon your life. It's beautiful. Your ability to truly hear others passes on his gift to you.

Jennifer said...

What an amazing tribute! I learned a lot about your friend and mentor and more about you, as well.