Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hello, my name is...Sarah


Thanks to everyone who commented to me in various forms about my friend Todd's death. The memorial service and the whole weekend in Madison were a blessed time of reconnection with old friends, family (my little brother's family lives there) and most importantly, of honoring Todd.

For the last 10 weeks, I've been writing the Monday reflection in our church's "Summer of scripture" blog. This past Monday, I reflected on one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8, and realized all the changes that have happened in the past few weeks. I wrote...In the past week and a half, I've been to the funeral of one friend and the baptism of my godson Adam. My little sister had a baby. My great uncle died. Another friend had cancer surgery. Another friend saw her lima bean-sized child on the ultrasound for the first time. It's been a week packed with endings and beginnings.

Absorbing all this - even the good stuff - takes its toll. Oh, and I forgot to mention that my housemate moved out too. Wah. :(

It makes me think about relationships, identity and role. I am called pastor, sister, friend, housemate, godmother, aunt, daughter. But when it comes right down to it, I'm just Sarah.

Two weekends in a row I was in a church service for an important ritual: memorial service one week, baptism the next. Both of these are events where I am used to fulfilling the role of Pastor. I was nervous going to the Memorial Service because I was just going to have to sit with my own grief - not worry about others. I was not Pastor. I was just Sarah.

The baptism took place at a Church where I used to serve as a vicar. I probably said 10 times, in response to people calling me pastor Sarah, you can just call me Sarah - or if you have to call me something, call me godmother! I was thrilled to take on that role. (The photo is from the baptism).

In response to Todd's death, a former professor got in touch. He signed off "Paul" but I responded: "Dear Prof C..." The Bishop is coming to preach at Prince of Peace this weekend. He has told me to call him by his first name, Dick. But I have such a hard time with it. I always want to call him Bishop. My godfather was, for all practical purposes, known as the Judge. He also had a first name, but his role became his name. I have to think hard to remember his real first name.

I like to be called pastor when I am serving as a pastor. But these past days it's been good to remember what it's also like to be called plain old Sarah.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A photo of Todd Varness and the Homer Court crew


I spent the morning going through old boxes and most of my pictures of Todd involve blurry flailing arms (Todd dancing) and strange faces (Jill). I couldn't get them scanned. The one I'm posting here came from David this morning - thanks so much! It is a version of a much better picture that I can't find. This was taken in the front yard of 1006 Homer Court at party for graduation from Valparaiso in 1996. Shortly after, we scattered around the globe. Kelly was in Ireland, Jill in China, David in France, Todd in Guatemala, and Angela, uh, Chicago. I was in Malawi. I kept that photo in a frame decorated with stamps from their letters from around the world. There remains a precious bond of friendship over distance and time. In the midst of all this sadness, it is wonderful to remember the love that we all shared.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death of a friend

On Monday an old friend died. Todd Varness was a brilliant physician, teacher and friend. He was a pediatrician in Madison, 36 years old, and his wife Deirdre is expecting their first child (a boy) in just a few months. On Good Friday he was diagnosed with lung cancer - the apparent return of a cancer he'd beaten years earlier. He died 4 months later.

Todd and I were no longer close friends. In college, however, he and a handful of others formed my community. He and I were lab partners (until he quickly passed me by and became my TA); dance partners, housemates, and good friends. So many memories of that time have come flooding back in the last few days. Acrobatic dance moves on the sticky floor of the Phi Psi house; debates over the true meaning of life after death as told by Dostoevsky; Ad hoc Chemistry lessons in the library; nights sitting on the roof of Homer Court. Not all of the memories are positive. He was also probably my first attempt at love, though it was never so clear, and my heart broke many times throughout our friendship. But the memories are all - every single one of them - incredibly full of life. Those were such vibrant times and the growth that occurred then has been a blessing for my lifetime.

Todd ultimately built a life rooted in community, faith, medicine, service, sports, and the love of his family.

I didn't know him well in this new life. But as I've been reading the testimonies of the vast swath of people who count themselves blessed to have known him, it's clear he was the same old Todd. Always up for adventure, fun, kind, spirited, driven, faithful, dedicated to his work and to the people he loved.

To grieve, I did what I do. Some people start baking or playing an instrument or exercising when they need to work out emotions. I preached. If you passed a jogger talking out loud and gesturing animatedly on Wooton parkway yesterday, that was me preaching a sermon to myself.

I centered my imaginary sermon on the text from last week, Luke 12. God reprimands a rich man foolishly storing up all these things for the future saying "this very night your life will be demanded of you." I thought about how Todd had lived his life as if other people had demanded it. People needed something from him - healing, friendship, wisdom - and he gave it. He might not have the future anyone had expected, but the life he gave while he had it was truly extraordinary. Todd packed more into his too-short 36 years than many of us do in the scores of years we've come to expect as our due. The tragedy of his death has touched many lives because Todd touched many lives.

It helped me remember that death is not the end. God's love is bigger than any grief, no matter how bottomless it might feel and a life that was vibrant on earth is even more vibrant now.

The overwhelming feeling I've had in the last 2 days is gratitude. I'm grateful that I got to be so influenced by someone as dynamic as Todd. I'm grateful that the people I met at good ol' Valpo created a community with me that still exists, despite years and miles of separation. Jill, Kelly, Dave, Tim, Rachel, Tiffany, Hope, Leanne and Jeff, Angela - I'm hardly in regular touch with any of these people, but I feel the influence of their friendship as a buoy, especially right now. I'm grateful for our professors - Dean Schwehn, Professor Contino; Margaret Franson, Olmstead, Piehl - are just a few. They took such care with us that they came to our parties and treated as if we might change the world.

I am grateful for this life. And plain old sad for his family and this world that Todd's ended so soon.