This story, from Wind in the Pines, celebrates two intertwined lives: My father, Clayton Iles, and my dear friend Ricky Gallien.
Today marks fourteen years since Ricky left us.
I share this story as a simple way of remembering his rich life as well as mourning his loss.
I still miss both of them.
My Dad and my friend Ricky.
A Jar Full of Marbles
I go to the cemetery – a place I visit often while helping family members select gravesites. It is always a very sobering job to stand with others at this place of tears and grief. Being here is a ministry as well as a labor of love. It is a great open window for caring in the name of Jesus. This is an unchangeable truth – People who’ve lost a loved one are always ready for a kind word, hug, and a heartfelt prayer.
Usually when meeting a person or family here, we’ll walk out into the cemetery to select their spot. However, today I’m not waiting to meet anyone else. I’m here alone in the early morning quietness of Dry Creek Cemetery.
Today I’m marking the grave I’ve dreaded – the burial spot of my dad. He died yesterday after a courageous two-year battle with cancer. In my hand I hold the grave marker from Hixson’s Funeral Home. It is difficult to believe that this marker, which I’ve driven in the ground dozens of times, will now be placed at the grave of my father.
I go to our family plot, and using my measuring tape select dad’s gravesite near the graves of my grandparents. As I measure, the quietness of the cemetery is both comforting and unsettling. So many emotions are running through my mind and heart. But there is one strong feeling that eclipse all of them – an unexplainable feeling of peace… coupled with a deep sense of thankfulness.
I miss my dad so much already, but I’m full of gratitude that I had him as my friend and role model for my forty-six years. I’m thankful for the faithful life he lived for God, my mom, and our family. He finished strong… and he finished well.
. . . Because of that, I’m filled with a “happy sorrow.” The tears come and go, but they are a mix of quiet joy as well as grief. I recall the words of Paul in I Thessalonians 4:13, “…or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”
I have hope… the assurance of eternity and life. After marking dad’s grave I walk through the center of the cemetery. I go by the oldest section of graves near the old dying cedar tree. It is well over one hundred years old and marks the spot of the first burial here in 1880. I walk by the grave of my great-great-great grandmother, Nancy Wagnon. She and her husband, Andrew Jackson Wagnon, left their families in Georgia and came to this area in the 1840’s. She is buried alone. Her husband, Grandpa Wagnon, was one of the many men who left their homes to fight in the Civil War and never returned.
Walking westward, I near the grave I want to see on this morning – the grave of my dear friend Ricky Gallien. Ricky died last September after a struggle with another dangerous and potentially fatal disease – depression. As I stand at the foot of his grave, sorrow sweeps over me once again. But that sorrow is once again tempered with quiet peace.
It has been eight months since Ricky’s death at his own hands. Although the pain and confusion of the loss still cuts deeply, God is giving me the great gift He gives us when we grieve – The reminders of the joys of lifetime friendship, growing up together, worshipping God together, funny stories of Ricky’s rich life, and how he loved his wonderful family and many friends.
The peace of God’s word, where I always go for comfort and assurance, comes to me. I recall Ricky’s favorite verse: Romans 8:28. This verse will adorn his tombstone when it is placed here. It is a “rock solid” verse that has comforted “Godly grievers” for two thousand years:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
Yes, I’ve seen much good occur since that sad September day, even in the midst of unbelievable grief over Ricky’s death. I have the peaceful knowledge that our God is continuing to bring good out of the most heartbreaking thing we’ve experienced.
Promises like Romans 8:28 are a wonderful gift from God. We are reminded that God’s grace, mixed with the steady progression of time, allows us to vividly remember the joyful times and relationships while at the same time soothing the hurtful emotions. In no way am I inferring that the searing pain ever goes away. It is too deep and personal for that to occur. However, our faithful God places His strong hand on the hurt and gives us the grace to go on.
I kneel beside Ricky’s grave. I’m reminded that if he was alive, he would be preaching my dad’s funeral tomorrow. And I remember how much I loved Ricky and how I miss him, and how I’m going to miss my dad in the same way. My dad was a father figure to Ricky and many other young men in Dry Creek. Daddy and Ricky had a special relationship that was tied securely in their similar interests, hobbies, and passion for God.
I pick up a faded orange Houston Astros cap lying by Ricky’s grave. It’s a gift left here in Ricky’s memory. My dad, Ricky, and I shared a love of the Astros and suffered and celebrated with them all of these years. I think about so many fun trips to the Astrodome with dad and our family. I smile as I think about the times Ricky, his brother Mike, and others of us went to watch an entire weekend series. You talk about country come to town!
I place the cap back by his grave. One more time I tell him that “our Astros” will one day win the World Series and I’ll come down here to celebrate. Now that Daddy’s grave is also here, I’ll have another faithful fan to visit with.
Setting the faded cap down, I reach for the real reason I wanted to come by Ricky’s grave before heading home. I just wanted to count the marbles in the jar. . .
Ricky’s only daughter, Kristi, plays basketball at Louisiana College. Ricky was so proud of her and they shared that very special love that exists between a dad and his daughter. When Kristi began her basketball season shortly after her dad’s death, the coach gave each girl on the team a handful of marbles.
To the seniors she gave twenty-four marbles, juniors – like Kristi – got forty-eight. Coach McIntosh told the girls, “These marbles represent how many basketball games you have left in your career. After each game I want you to do something special with one of the marbles.”
You can probably guess what Kristi has done with each marble. There at her dad’s grave is a simple mason fruit jar. Beginning in the fall, and on into the winter, the jar has slowly filled up with marbles… and the sweet heartfelt notes left by a special daughter. Their season is now over. It will be next November before the jar continues to be filled. I pick up the pint jar of marbles and realize I am holding a very precious treasure in my hand. I dare not open it or read the enclosed notes. It is enough for me to simply touch it and realize what it means.
I turn to leave and make my way back to the truck. Once again, I go by dad’s spot. Stopping, I am reminded that this is where his earthly body, the physical part that I will always identify with my father, will be laid to rest tomorrow. The human body that my mom, sisters, and I watched breathe his last breath yesterday, will be laid to rest right here.
But the “real Clayton Iles,” that God-breathed soul the Creator puts in my dad, now lives on.
…And already, less than twenty-four hours after his death, God is sharing His wonderful gift of grace with me: The mental picture of my dad in these last weeks – old, sick, and feeble, are being washed away by the memories of the “wondrously alive” man I called Daddy – The lover of games, the man of a thousand witty sayings, the bass singer, the constant whistler, the great teacher, and the loving man who was deeply loved in return by all.
I guess I could put it this way: God is filling up my jar. And He’s filling it up with the beautiful marbles of those happy memories. I recall the wise words of my special friend, Mrs. Helyn Aguillard:
“Now you must cash in on your wonderful memories – They are like money in the bank –
except they never run out.
They pay such wonderful interest,
even when you are sad.”
Yes, just like money in the bank . . .Or marbles in the jar.
Those wonderful, wonderful memories that are God’s special gift of grace to all of us.