Yesterday afternoon, my wife Lesa and I attended the memorial service for our long-time friend Gordon Carper (May 10, 1935 – September 3, 2011) at the Berry College Chapel in Rome, Georgia. We listened to “You Raise Me Up” (Celtic Woman), “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley) and “Amazing Grace” (from both granddaughter Kallan Carper and Celtic Woman). We heard joyful, heartfelt and often humourous remembrances from Dr. Carper’s former Berry College colleagues (Richard Lukas, William Hoyt and Chaitram Singh) and from his former students (William Pence, Bert Clark, Timothy Howard and Greg Hanthorn). The memorial service, led by the reverend Paul Raybon, truly was the Celebration of a Life.
After the service, we spent time with family and friends at a reception at the college’s historic Ford Buildings before going back out to the Carper’s house. Lesa and I hadn’t seen some of those people in over 30 years. In the “Ford Living Room,” we continued what began at the memorial service, remembering and telling stories. A nationally known scholar, Gordon Carper taught at Berry College between 1965 and 2003, and those years overflow with memories from the untold numbers of colleagues and students impacted by Gordon’s teaching, mentoring and gregarious, you-oriented storytelling.
After a death, family and close friends are suddenly immersed in details. Doctors, funeral home directors, pastors, newspapers, florists, caterers, and others suddenly loom large in the daily schedule. While details steal away time for grief, they also provide a focal point of necessary busywork that can help friends and family cope with the loss during the stunning and confusing limbo of thoese first days.
My wife Lesa was one of Gordon’s students at Berry College. I was one of his colleagues between 1977 and 1980. We were married at their house in 1987 with Gordon and Joyce standing beside us, and with their sons Noel and Todd and other friends standing around us. We can spin yarns about Carper-House Moments, Gordon and Berry College until the cows come home, and while staying with his wife Joyce for several days this past week, the stories we knew became intermissions of levity in between the tasks required to prepare for yesterday’s memorial service and all the guests who would arrive.
I won’t presume to speak for Lesa or Joyce, but I felt that we were all too busy to truly grieve. Lesa and I have spoken of this before: the fact that the paperwork and details of a death are so often the full focus of attention until after the memorial service or funeral come and go that there’s little time to think of much else. Not that the paperwork ends there, but it begins to fall away and during the long nights grief is likely to become a close shadow in all those streets, parks, rooms and other places where the memorial service memories and the Ford Living Room reception stories were born.
Lesa and I were part of a close-knit group of faculty and students who came together in the 1970s out of mutual respect, friendship and to support each other during an era in the college’s history when labor troubles tried very hard to trump the process of education. The “dark time,” as we call these years had a huge impact on all of our lives. Time has healed most of the wounds. Perhaps the wounds made us all stronger. While there was much to be said and done during the past week and at yesterday’s memorial service and reception, major dark time stories did not occupy center stage. We all know those stories and they flavor our thinking and they are, perhaps, a subtext to the wonderfully humorous and inspiring celebrations of Gordon’s life at public gatherings and during one-on-one conversations.
Yesterday, we—as a group—were given an opportunity to celebrate and consider the impact of a teacher, mentor, leader, and friend in our lives and in the lives of Berry College’s graduates for over a quarter of a century. Now we personally have time for the grief that begins after all has been said and done.