Triptych Plus One


Three funerals in two days. Three remarkable men, completely different. Three interpretations of how to live. One force of nature to conclude.

Thomas Lane Nelson died August 27. His obituary reflects a long life—military service, business acumen, family. His beloved Jean had been gone only four months. Not that his children were ready, but he was. Imagine 66 years of marriage. As bodies age, happy or not, they sometimes acquire the residuals of pain—a surgery not healed, an infection detected, an odd organ out or in. At least 10 years of that, a wheelchair, hearing aids.

When I saw him last, he was going into a sealing. I’ve known him since January 1985 when we moved to Dallas, though he and Jean moved probably eight times afterward. Unless you’re close, catching up on kids usually happens first. He’d ask about mine, and there might be a little bragging. Brennon Nelson, his grandson, said he would always call you “the second best…” whatever. Brennon received his JD with honors from The University of Chicago last year and sang “O My Father” as nearly perfect as I’ve ever heard it perhaps because his undergraduate degree is in music performance. Best, not second.

  • From Tom Nelson I’ve seen how powerful the loyalty of love can be. He didn’t see life as an easy glide upwards. He shared successes and failures alike. He knew Jean loved him, he’d say, even if he knew nothing else.
  • He was a Navy pilot, a top gun, who flew 300 combat missions. He’d tell of landing on a flight deck with no lights, and I felt I was sitting him in that cockpit, praying for all we were both going to live. Fear passes.
  • And it’s the trivial things we sometimes remember. He loved candy corn, and today when I saw a fancy dessert plate that looked like a piece of it, of course he came to mind.

Douglas Eugene Shields died August 24, unexpectedly after a recent diagnosis of heart disease. His obituary is short; stories from his brother gave us much more. Doug was born with cerebral palsy. He needed special care to eat, to play, to crawl. His mother, Lri, a nurse with an inventive mind, fed him Three Musketeers because he would lick the chocolate and then consume more food because he had been able to move his mouth. She placed toys just out of reach so he would have to put forth real effort to reach them. Once on a Christmas Day, at age 3, he began to walk, but just for the day. It would be months before he would again.

He was someone to whom I said “Hello! How are you?” With a little low wave he would say “Hi” if we were too far apart. His mother and I have talked for years. She has had many losses, a baby son, a husband too soon, a barely out of toddlerhood granddaughter. Lori is British, and she made it through World War II bombings of her village. And nursing, always nursing, having arrived in Dallas in the 1960s with her American husband who moved the family all around the two countries. I learned that he was a long-time movie buff with a sideline as an extra. Once there was a film cast and crew in and around the house. They’d had a very long night. When Lori strolled through the next morning in her nightie, she was surprised to see the living room full. Later, as Michael Douglas was going out the door, he called to Doug, “Tell Mom goodbye!” She was livid. “Don’t ever neglect to tell me WHO is here!”

  • From him I saw a mother’s love, first. It was her fight to give him a life, and so she did.
  • The ability never to say anything unkind about someone—nor let anyone else—is rare. He had it, in an unassuming way.
  • Most of the time, just being quiet is the greatest gift, to yourself and others.

Muhammad Ali Mazidi died August 30, sitting in his chair. His obituary is also short. No cause is known. Word flew through the Baha’i community locally and from them to their friends. I met Ali, as he was called, in January this year at a Baha’i observance of Martin Luther King Day. He came up and said, “Hello! I’m Muhammad Ali.” Most people, in most contexts, are quiet and waiting. I couldn’t help but smile, of course. He assumed I knew the same people he did through the international dinners held in the area, and he’d just never met me before. Those dinners ended when their venue closed. I suggested I might have a way to help.

From January to July, I met Muhammad a time or two when he asked about the international dinner planning. He also introduced me to a handy man, brought him over and then texted me to check on him many times. In that time he went from being a complete stranger to a friend to meet at Costco who would then insist on buying me the hot dog lunch. And he enjoyed the international dinner although it was with a different group of friends and an unfamiliar location. A pleasant surprise.

His services were in the Baha’i tradition. He was born in Iran and had spent years helping others immigrate. Few knew all that he did. His accomplishments were not part of the service except for letters read from the pulpit (Ali has a Wikipedia page). The readings from the Baha’i service, though, were sublime. This from Baha’u’llah: “Wert thou to attain to but a dewdrop of the crystal waters of divine knowledge, thou wouldst readily realize that true life is not the life of the flesh but the life of the spirit.” Throughout we heard of grace and glory, enduring beauty and goodness, compassion and light. One young Iranian woman sang “O Son of Man” in English, using a melody her friend had written. This version shares photos of the tender moments of the family of man. The melody is different than hers, of course, but watching this, I could feel that the truth was here—and looking not unlike what might appear in my faith tradition—giving hope and peace to all. Her version was perfection—like Brennon’s would be on Monday.

  • Work is one thing, but life is about helping. As his obituary said, “(Ali) dedicated his life to serving others and working towards a more peaceful and just world.” He was friendly immediately, shared our acquaintance, and championed a handyman.
  • His neighborhood walking friend Chris said she isn’t a writer but gave a completely eloquent, elegant description of Ali as a nugget of gold. She realized it the day before he died, after their walk, and didn’t get to tell him. I immediately told two friends they were my nuggets. There are many more. It’s good to tell, and perennially we are reminded to do so. Don’t worry if you don’t. People can feel it.
  • Opinions form and then re-form. Ali wasn’t sure how the international dinner would go. He came anyway and helped. He changed his opinion in support of the dinner and will be ever the more keenly missed for it.

They say deaths come in threes. It’s not true, of course. They just come. We count three and hope we get a break. Queen Elizabeth II died today as I write this, a fourth. Funerals can be of all sorts and sizes because they are for the grieving who at that moment will be able to attend. Millions will watch the Queen’s services, as will I, for the music mostly. They say she was a devout Christian, but she knew how to be quiet and never drew attention to herself. She cared about her family. In spite of scandals and more in 1992, she gave this gracious speech, famously referring to that year as Annus Horribilis. All of us have them but few remember to give them Latin names.

The”nugget-ness” we share may be the power of example, whether we know/realize/understand people do notice us. This YouTube charmingly pairs the Queen with a personal favorite, Paddington Bear. He is rather a klutz, but she is completely gracious. And not only that. She has her own marmalade sandwich “for later” in her purse. Something in common to share. He concludes, “Thank you…for everything.” And that is what I say in farewell to all these four. We are better for having known you.