It has been 21 days.
Three weeks exactly to the day. Three weeks, and this is the first time I’ve considered writing about it. I’ve talked about it a bit. I’ve lamented it. But it’s remained buried beneath a hardened carapace of denial, grief, and sorrow. This empty, vacuous hole. This invisible, heavy weight.
My friend Rick is gone.
Three weeks ago, today -April 2, 2019— my friend Rick Elias opened his eyes to see Jesus at last. The journey was hard, and wearisome, and difficult. He fought bravely. He fought the monster of glioblastoma that hid itself in his brain…and he fought the monsters who keep it company; fear, doubt, sadness, regret, sorrow…
I have wondered why this has not broken me more than it has. I wondered if it’s because, from the moment he called me last August, to tell me of the diagnosis and the terrible prognosis, I knew this was going to be the outcome. So far, the score is Glioblastoma 1- humanity 0 for all of history. Nobody survives this one. I knew this last August. I wept at my desk after I got off the phone with him. I went home that afternoon and listened to his music and wept some more. I wept a lot in the early days and months. I have wondered if I grieved it so much before it happened that I was a little numb to it after he left us. Maybe. I don’t know.
But this morning, sitting at my desk getting ready to pray and then go to my work day, it hit me again, and I finally wanted to write about it. Rick once told me, and told others quite often, that writing -for him—was like prayer. Something internal took place when Rick began writing a song and it was sacred. I understand it now that I write. This is the gift God implanted in my soul when He knit me in the womb and when I do this thing I am treading on sacred ground. Preachers must feel this when they stand in the pulpit. Doctors must feel this when they are in surgery.
Rick felt it when he gave us incredible songs. Incredible, honest, transparent, catchy, memorable, enjoyable songs.
I’ve always listened to great music and wondered, sometimes, at what I was hearing. I always listened to them and thought how this was what was living in someone’s soul for days or months or years and this is what came out. I’ve listened to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album and marveled how all sound lived in the heart and mind of a 25-year-old young man from New Jersey. I've had tears in my eyes at the beauty of some of Little Steven Van Zandt's music (especially with Southside Johnny) and been amazed that all those sounds came out of one man's heart.
I’ve listened to John Hiatt and been amazed that a seemingly simple guy could hold such beauty in his heart and manage to get it out on paper. I’ve sat slack-jawed at Stevie Ray Vaughan and realized all that amazing music had been swimming around in the heart of a sometimes-tormented little kid from the poor side of Dallas who couldn’t even read music. Yet he managed to make some of the best music this world has ever heard.
The same things would happen when I would listen to Rick’s music. And maybe it’s because I knew him well and called him friend, or maybe it’s that his style was exactly what I loved in music and it grabbed me so tightly from the very first note I ever heard. Or maybe it’s both of those things coupled with the fact that this was a large, remarkable person who left such a giant void in this world that most of his friends remain speechless still, three weeks after his leaving us.
Things lived in Rick’s heart that spoke so clearly and so loudly that I wondered how he contained them. Rick wrestled with religion, but he loved Jesus deeply. One can’t write a song like “Man of No Reputation” and not love Jesus deeply and be well-acquainted with who He was. Rick could rail at a theological point he disagreed with, with the force of a hurricane and the venom of a cobra. And then sing about the Jesus he trusted in with a passion and honesty that goes missing these days, among the current crop of CCM “stars.”
Rick was far from perfect. But Rick never lied about his imperfections. His friend and band-mate Mark Robertson said it so perfectly; “Rick was just like you and me…only way more.” And he was.
When he was happy, your sides would hurt with laughter. When he was cynical and sarcastic, you would laugh until you had tears in your eyes, so long as sarcasm and cynicism were your cup of tea. When he was angry…God help anyone on the wrong side of that topic. But when you were his friend, you were his family and he never stayed mad for long. Not if he really loved you. And thankfully…Rick Elias loved me. Our last eight months of conversations were peppered with “Thank you’s” and “I love you brother’s”
We spent time trying to laugh at as much of this final act as we could, all the while knowing that both of us had read the last scene and knew how this was going to end. Once in a while, Rick would break down a little. He was worried about his wife Linda. His kids. His granddaughters. His friends. He was worried about what they were thinking and feeling and whether they would be okay after he was gone. He didn’t have any concrete answers about those things and that troubled him.
Maybe his biggest frustration, outside of his family and their comfort with this, was his entire inability to play anymore. Rick was a musician. He was a musician. This was his life. This was his heart and his soul and his best ability to communicate all that his giant, mysterious heart contained. The location of the tumor made communication a chore. Words were forming in his head as rapidly as they always had but there was a disconnect between the mind and the mouth. He would stumble to say what he was wanting to say, or he’d forget what he wanted to say or which word he wanted to use, and the frustration would eat at him.
Early on in this diagnosis he had fallen and broken his middle finger on his left hand. It was so bad that they were talking of amputating it, but they managed to keep it. But it was frozen in a three-quarters-extended position, unable to bend, like Rick was giving the finger to the world for the rest of his days. If you knew Rick Elias…this was perfect.
Aside from being grotesque and comical at once, it was heartbreaking. Because the frozen middle finger prevented Rick from playing guitar anymore and this broke his heart. The last lengthy conversation we’d had, back in March, was about this. He said he felt like Job. Like God had stripped him of the very thing he had identified himself with for his entire life. He couldn’t play. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t even remember the words to all those songs he’d written.
All those songs.
All those wonderful, amazing, incredible songs.
A few days after that conversation, I called him and told him briefly; “Man I don’t think you’re living “Job” (Rick had written an album based on his readings of the Book of Job and had, at one point, told me he felt like now God was making him live out the lyrics) I said “You’re living out “Stripped.” Stripped was the last song on his first album. A song about a man who stands before God, broken and humbled by his seeming continuous failings and faults, and yet who finds out that being stripped of all the pretense of correct Christian living and standing “naked, humbled, but not betrayed” was actually where the freedom was found. It’s where the love of God was most clearly pronounced. I told him that I felt like God had permitted the loss of his music for the final months of his life, because He’d wanted these months to Himself. Just Him and Rick. Getting things right, getting things out in the open…
In the end, I think that is what was happening. Rick was coming home. He limped his way back to the front door, his armor dented and a bit rusty, his battle gear broken and held together with bailing wire and duct tape, but with some amazing stories from the field, and the contented look of a warrior who had enough of battle and was laying down his weapons to sit by the fire for a few last days.
Rick Elias is gone. And the hole he left in my heart is so big, so deep, so uncharted, that I might never -this side of Heaven—understand how big it really is. I know it’s big enough that it hurts this much. I know it’s big enough that it will never be covered over, not with all the hallowed ground of his music or the memories, or the pictures in my heart. I’m only now beginning to feel the depth of this loss and I fear that there will be days when I descend a little too deep and the weight will crush me, and the tears will flow like a river.
I miss you, dearest friend. I miss the laughter and the anger. The sacred and the profane. The way we could be so mad at each other about something so inconsequential, and then laugh about how stupid it was that something so innocuous came between us, and all would be right again. I miss the incredibly intelligent commentary on life, that you brought. Even if I disagreed sometimes, it was still incredibly thought-out, incredibly spoken, and incredibly funny. I miss the songs. I miss the stories. I miss the big softy that lived inside that cave-man that you showed the world. I miss your love for Linda and for your kids and for those granddaughters, and for your friends.
I’m building some birdhouses in my basement, because I know you loved them. I needed something besides music to remember you by and to honor you with. I decided it’ll be bird houses. And a fire pit. And love for my friends. And love for Jesus.
…and your music.
I love you brother…
We’ll see you soon
**Rick's battle left some large medical expenses. PLEASE consider helping the family by donating here:
Rick's Medical Fund