The funeral of my cousin felt like a story stopped mid-sentence, a film’s ending being interrupted by a power outage. The abruptness like a rip in the heart. His story as a Oklahoma country boy turned soldier still needed many more lines written, but for reasons we will never know is now complete.
In the weeks following his death, stories needed to be told, around various tables, over cell phones, within gripping hugs. Some were familiar and old. Others fresh and new. They were given and received with a combination of awed disbelief and bittersweet amusement. His best friends told stories of mischief and bravery, of kindness and orneriness. During the memorial service his sister Casey shared memories of her brother on behalf of her family. She read Psalm 103 with unbelievable grace and beautiful truth, the call to “Bless the Lord and to praise His holy name!” in the middle of unspeakable grief. These memorable stories told and retold help do just that. They assist, even if it is ever so slightly, the healing of broken hearts.
Justin’s life in the United States Air Force was filled with awards and honors, many of which were unknown to even his closest family and friends. As a member of a special operations team, many stories will never be known. I sat with jaw dropped as I heard tales of his volunteer work in Afghanistan orphanages and evacuation missions that helped hundreds following Hurricane Katrina.
As in many families, commonly shared childhood experiences is the only thing that links together cousins following adulthood. When life and jobs, marriages and military service, move families far away, it is easy and inevitable that you grow apart.
So when reunited briefly, those stories of simple summer days shared so many years ago, take on a sweetly precious quality in the retelling. Especially true now that one of us is no longer here to share in the telling. It helps to recall and retell stories. It pins people down in history in a concrete way. Storytelling keeps the memory alive.
I keep replaying some of those stories in my mind and to honor Justin, the cousin who helped me learn responsibility and shared in adventures, I will tell some here. These memories remind me of the sacredness of ordinary life.
When I was 13 and 14, I was able to live for a month each summer with my aunt and uncle to help corral their four children: Justin age 7, Casey age 6, and twin girls around 4. I fluctuated those summers between responsible teenager and playful child, that never-never land before adulthood.
They lived on a country hill in an ocean of wheat fields in northern Oklahoma. The family had a pet goat named Claude, actually renamed Claudine after closer inspection. One of our chores was to mix goat formula every day and bottle feed Claudine. I can remember doing this each morning with Justin, one wrestling the baby goat still while the other held the bottle for her greedy mouth. I remember walking down the red dirt road with all four siblings in tow following a big rainstorm. We were bathing suit clad and barefoot, covered in mud. Justin snuck up behind me and dropped a frog down my suit. I’m still a tad bit scarred from that experience. We swam in their metal cow tank turned swimming pool and he never let me forget how my uncle, his dad, made me eat the bowl of beans I covered in ketchup and mustard at dinner one night.
The memory that burns brightest though happened one June morning. My Aunt had already left early to attend college and I woke up late because the skies were so dark. Realizing immediately that a bad storm was brewing, a greenish ominous glow in the western sky, I hustled the kids out of bed and down the cellar stairs, like a hen gathering chicks. Basement would be too generous a term for the dank, musty underground space that held washing machine, spider webs and scary corner shadows. At one end, a large wooden door led to a cinder block stairway up to the ground level. About the time the wind began to howl and rain splat on the small ground level window, the large door, not shut tight enough flew open with a bang. Justin ran with me to try to shut the door. As the two of us struggled against the force of the wind blowing down the staircase, I saw the whole scene from above myself and a giggle rose up uninvited from the bottom of my stomach. I began to laugh at the absurdity of the situation I had found myself in. Fear of what was about to happen chased the laughter out in uncontrollable waves. My brave young cousin’s words still echo “Kelli! Stop laughing! It’s not funny!” The few times we got together as adults he would always tell that story and laugh.
My heart grieves with and for his parents, his sisters, his wife and girls. I knew the boy much better than the man. I wish I had known the soldier and father and husband. I am grateful for what I did know though and am recommitted to treasuring up the gifts of ordinary days. For they all eventually become sacred in the retelling.
You were dearly loved and will be forever missed.
Justin Rae Diel – 1973 -2013