One of my best friends died just before midnight last night. It was not a tragic accident, or a sudden illness; he was one month shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. His name was Byron Bristol.
Mr. Byron is not one of those men whom the world will remember. His passing will not be plastered across USA Today, and his name will not scroll across the screen on a news ticker. He outlived most of his family and many of his friends. But he was a man who took adventure in his stride, who trusted the Lord with a faith rarely seen, who founded an amazing Christian fellowship, who was a source of wisdom and encouragement; he was a man who made mistakes but also and made memories and made friends that lasted a lifetime. He was my close friend for about four years.
|A young Byron Bristol--going on|
his first date with the woman
who would be his soul-mate
for 72 years
He lived in the same small town that I call home, as a member of a Christian community that he and his wife founded on what they thought were God's orders back in 1985. My grandparents lived there too, running the bed and breakfast which is the hub of that community. Mr. Byron and his wife, Esther, lived alone in a little house which always sat on the outskirts of my mind. I saw them at church, I saw them around my grandparents' house during my whole childhood, but they were never a part of my life until my dad made an out-of-the-blue suggestion that I interview Mr. B about his long and interesting history. I love to write, so the idea of writing his biography was attractive, and to be honest I felt a little guilty for ignoring the old couple for so many years. So I took my little fifteen year old self over to the Bristol's house with my notepad, pencil, and video recorder, ready to hear stories from a man who was born in the days of jailed suffragettes, horses and buggies, iceboxes, dirty factories, no interstates, and Ford Model Ts, when television was a thing in the far future.
|A rather bad photo scanned from a local newspaper|
which featured Mr. Byron's story of how
an American company designed and
built the Japanese Zero fighter plane. Read it here.
We soon got beyond simple questions and answers. I wanted to delve into his history, his life, his feelings and reactions and motivations. I learned about his family, his friends, his work, his hobbies, his dreams. I heard hilarious stories, heartbreaking stories, stories that inspired me and made me ask more and more questions. We went through his slide collection and saw pristine photographs in brilliant colors--decades frozen in time and space projected on a white screen. I created a Heritage Makers book for the Bristols (you can see a preview of it here), a short biography of their lives up to that point, filled with tales and photos and quotes and miracles. It was an honor to write it, but I wasn't going to stop there. I continued to interview him for a "bigger" book that was to come some time in the future; I really just wanted to sit and talk with him for an hour each week.
|Byron and his bride on one of their international trips.|
After the love of his life died on June 1, 2009, Mr. Byron began readying himself for death. His goal had been to help Esther until the very end, and that had been accomplished. But God had more in store for His servant. These past three years have been a growing time for Mr. B, a time to learn contentment and the power of prayer and forgiveness. So many elderly people get set in their ways at this time of life; they grow sedentary and listless. Mr. Byron longed to be as active as ever, despite his walker, and his mind was always actively planning, coordinating, creating--he remained an artist. He was still growing in Christ on the day of his death; he still had goals he wanted to accomplish.
|Mr. Byron sculpted and cast this little chipmunk|
statue decades ago, then gave it to me as a present.
I saw him on his last day on this earth, and I thank God that I didn't put off that visit until it was too late. Just the week before we had had one of our well-loved talks, and except for a few lapses in memory and mental mix-ups he was very sharp. Our conversation was spurred by cards from the Un-Game, and it brought us laughter and soul-baring conversation. We talked about the first scripture that came to his mind, "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness" (Psalm 48:1); it was a verse that spoke to him of the greatness of our God and how worthy He is of our praise and admiration.
Then a few days ago Mr. Byron took a sudden turn for the worst. His dedicated caretakers, my amazing grandparents, had to help him perform the most basic tasks, and he showed all the signs of death's approach. But at age ninety-eight, after so many scares and close calls, we half-suspected that he'd just bounce back like he had every time before.
He was more unresponsive than I'd ever seen him, and it was strange to see him lying in bed when he only ever sat in his easy chair, but he knew me and said my name with a smile. I brought him a vase full of daffodil blossoms, fresh from the wet spring sunshine outside his dark room. I held his hand, told him I couldn't stay long, mentioned that there were a few stories I would ask him more about on my next visit. Then I did what I hardly ever do, gave him a long hug and prayed (very loud so that he could hear me), prayed for peace and grace to envelop him on every side, and God's presence to be with him always. Then I just sat there holding his hand, trying not to cry. He reached up and touched my face, looking at me with eyes that loved so undeserving. I told him I had to go, he said, "Where?" and I explained that I had "stuff" to do. He was almost asleep and couldn't say much. After a garbled sentence that was something like "The first planting needs to be checked," I smiled and said my good-byes.
Mr. Byron liked to say "shalom", the Hebrew word meaning peace, as a farewell. I rarely--if ever--said that to him. But this time I said it, "Shalom." He looked up and said, "Shalom," and I said it again, "Shalom." Those were the last words we exchanged.
He died after a day filled with friends, family, hymns, prayers, and loving care. He wanted to be with the Lord so badly for so long, and finally his petitions were answered. He has found true shalom.