Heaven must be a little more crowded these days. Two saints passed from this life to the next in the space of the last month. Both were friends and both remarkable people, beloved by many and respected by all. Both were born 80-plus years ago, so they lived long, fruitful lives—but still taken too soon. I wish I’d had more time with both of them.
John Kroeker was a member of my church. He had a warm smile, a lovely baritone voice and a crown of thick white hair. One Sundays he wore bolo ties and a blue suit jacket. John was always there. He had been a member of the church for more than 50 years and knew everyone and everything. He was as confortable talking about the day’s sermon as he was fixing a leaky pipe in the church basement. For years he and his wife Evelyn served as unofficial caretakers both of the church building and the congregation. He would keep tabs on people and forward their prayer requests, even years after they had moved away.
John had been a schoolteacher before I met him and I’m sure he was quite good. Retirement didn’t slow him down. Into his 80s John and Evelyn still walked to church on Sundays and John liked to ride his bike. The day before he died John came to church, like always, and since he sat on the same side of the church as I do, he turned around after the service and asked me about my family (they weren’t there that day). “Where are the boys?,” he said, always interested in the lives of other people. Later, I would learn, he had complimented both the pastor and the musicians for their efforts, something he did regularly. In fact, he told the pastor that day that the sermon was one of his top ten favorites. I liked it a lot too. (You can listen to it at http://www.berkeleycov.org/audio/sermonMP3s/2014_12_28_Christ_the_Redeemer.mp3. Don’t be put off by the long scripture reading at the beginning.) It had to do with the grace of God and his inclusion of seemingly wayward people into the family of God. John had a real heart for including everyone in his world too, from the recovering alcoholic who had been beaten up by life to the pastor’s eight-year-old son who enjoyed John’s corny jokes. As one friend put it, John had the kind of character we all aspire to, the kind Paul writes about in Corinthians: love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful. Additionally, John was curious and I’m sure that kept his mind sharp. A man in our church who teaches classes about the intersection of science and religion shared that John never missed one of his classes. In fact, John studied at Cal and at seminary, but he rarely mentioned this. He was humble, yet always had a wise word.
Shirley Bechelli started off as a client of my husband’s tax practice. Over the years, however, she became a treasured friend. She already had four grown sons of her own, but for some reason she and her husband Joe loved my husband and adopted him into the family. They joked that he was their “fifth son.” We attended their family weddings, Christmas parties and birthday parties, along with their sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Family was central to Shirley and even into her 80s she hosted parties in the garden at her and Joe’s second house in Sonoma.
One of the most striking things about Shirley was her keen interest in the lives of other people, not unlike John. Shirley was a tiny woman, with short-cropped grey hair, snazzy brightly-colored glasses and a calm smile. As soon as she saw you, she motioned for you to sit beside her, and her body language told you she was completely focused on you. She wanted to know everything that was going on in your life, as if you were the most important person in the world. Even the last time I saw her, in her hospital bed at UCSF, the last day of her life, she brightened up when she saw me and she asked how the boys were.
Like John and Evelyn, Shirley and Joe had been married for more than 60 years. Shirley and Joe did everything together, from host parties, to play with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to enjoy annual trips to Hawaii. Every spring they both came from San Francisco to my husband’s tax practice for their yearly tax meeting and then lunch. Every summer we would take them to a Giants game, which they loved. They would take the bus from their home in Marina and meet us at Amici’s pizza across the street from the ballpark. They preferred that to the ballpark food. We always had a good time.
Neither John nor Shirley were attention seekers. They were attention givers. And they loved life and loved God. They were grateful for the good things they had and sought to share it with others. I will remember them both a long time and the example they set as people true to themselves and faithful to God and others.
At Shirley’s funeral, my husband read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi’s. It was a fitting poem for such an active life of compassion. (Incidentally, the name of this blog, “La Clochette,” came about when I saw some of the words from this prayer tatooed on the arm of a waiter in San Francisco. Going home to look up the prayer, I discovered it had originally been published in a French magazine called “La Clochette,” which means the little bell. I liked the name. And I really like the prayer, which follows.)
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.