This morning in The Wall Street Journal I read a well-written obituary by James R. Hagerty focusing on a woman who so loved to be in the spotlight that her former husband—she had four and divorced four—simply said, “To say that [she] loved publicity would be a massive understatement. She lived for publicity.”
Hagerty wrote, “More than 30 years before she died, she had her own tombstone engraved,” noting on it that “her father was a prominent neurologist and that she was recognized at White House press conferences by several presidents.”
Hagerty says that in a 1996 People magazine article, she simply said, “The main thing is to keep my name out in front.”
I do not intend to mention her name. You won’t know it anyway, and it will soon be forgotten. But I admit that I’ll have a hard time forgetting what Hagerty says this woman wrote on her own memorial: “Power is greater than love, and I did not get where I am by standing in line, nor by being shy.”
I suppose when she wrote that pathetic line, she could hardly imagine that “where I am” could mean anything other than “in the spotlight.” For much of her 89 years, she lived for power and fame. Where did she get? She got to the place where “where I am” means “in the grave.” And then what happens to such a shriveled soul?
I read that obituary this morning. Then this afternoon I drove down to our little town’s First Baptist Church to attend the funeral of a man whose name I’m privileged to mention and whose service I felt it was an honor to attend, “Sonny” Byrd. Most of us just called him Mr. Byrd.
I didn’t know that Mr. Byrd’s first name was actually Levanather. I’ve still not heard anyone take a stab at pronouncing it, but, if I’m doing that right, I kind of like it. It has a dignity about it. Just like the man, married 57 years to his “sweetheart” and committed to his Lord.
I didn’t get to know Mr. Byrd nearly as well as I’d like to have, partly because he was such a quiet, gentle, “always there but never loud” presence in our community that I guess I thought he always would be. I figured he had many stories to tell, and I hoped one day to be able to sit down, drink coffee with him, and hear some of them. He was here for 60 years; me, for 33. Surely there was time. And then there wasn’t. Not in this life, but I hope in the next.
I felt almost presumptuous attending the funeral, mostly because—my own fault—I didn’t know him well enough. But what I knew, I respected. He cut a striking figure, a man carved out of rich ebony, clad in crisp coveralls and a cowboy hat. He worked so well, so hard, with dignity and the kind of soft-spoken gentleness that is only found in those who are genuinely strong with the kind of soul-strength that the loud will never understand, much less, possess. I can’t imagine anyone less interested in the limelight, but when I heard of Mr. Byrd’s passing, I knew our community had lost the kind of person to whom any community owes a debt that can’t be paid. At the funeral, it became clear that lots of folks felt that way.
It’s probably a mercy to him that he could not hear what was said at his service because the last thing in the universe he’d have wanted was for his name to be “out in front.” I have no idea what will be written on his tombstone, but it might well be this: “Love is always greater than power.”
And that is literally God’s truth.
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Copyright 2018 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.