The day got here almost without me realizing it.
Earlier this year I’d planned on remembering this day with a woodworking project I’ve been designing. A bird feeder shaped like a guitar to honor my dear friend Rick Elias.
Rick always loved watching the birds in his back yard, and during the ten-month battle with a brain tumor that he ultimately lost -or won, depending on your view of eternity—the birdfeeders in his yard brought him great peace and comfort, and a distraction from the things he was wrestling with.
I drew up a plan. I have some lumber ready to use and was going to pick up the rest of what I needed and finish this. I swear…I was going to build this thing. My goal was to build the first one and ship it to Linda so she could put it out in the yard with all the others. But I got busy, and then this coronavirus hit and has decimated my mortgage business, at least temporarily.
So I’m trying to keep my chin up and hold on to hope and socially distance myself and hope for carpentry to come in while I wait for the mortgage business to improve, and I try to juggle all those balls while the world deals with a killer virus and I grieve the memory of my friend.
One year ago, tonight, I was pulling into my driveway after a day’s work. I was still at LU then and I had stopped at the grocery store on the way home. My phone rang and it was a mutual friend of mine and Rick’s. He told me that Rick had just passed. He said he was at the hospital with Linda and asked me also not to say anything to anyone because Rick’s mom was on an airplane flying in from California to say goodbye and they didn’t want her to find out he had passed by reading it on social media somewhere.
I have a rule about that sort of thing anyway…if it’s not my immediate family, I don’t feel it’s my job to post a notice on any social media. Besides…I was too devastated to want to face the Facebook bombardment at the moment.
I hung up with Paul and sat in my truck in my driveway. I had only closed on this home two weeks before. I’d called Rick that week and told him I’d bought a home again and he was thrilled. He and Linda were there for me through six years of homelessness in Nashville the last time the mortgage industry collapsed, and they were happy for me to have come full circle. Linda asked for my address to send me a housewarming note, and we hung up with the usual, “I love you brother.”
I spoke with Rick one more time before April 2. Sitting in the parking lot of Kroger on a Saturday, talking about what he thought the future held, and that they were going to enroll him in a clinical trial of an experimental drug to try to get ahead of the tumor. The barrage of treatments they’d tried just weren’t working and they wanted to at least give him more time.
I spoke to him of a song he wrote. A song called “Stripped. It tells the story of a man -Rick in first person—coming to a place in life where he understands that even though he is broken and hard and battered and cynical, and even though he knows this about himself, and even though being stripped of all these outward deformities is painful and hard…he also knows it is the only way to stand fully in the presence of God. “Humbled but not betrayed” is how he put it. Rick had told me that he felt like he was living out the lyrics of an album he’d written based on the book of Job. He thought he was Job-esque in his abandonment by God. He’d told me that a few days earlier, and on that particular Saturday I had called him to tell him he was wrong. He wasn’t living out “Job,” I said “Rick…you’re living out “Stripped.” God has you all to Himself in these final days. You can’t play anymore, you can’t write anymore, you can’t even remember the lyrics to your songs sometimes. But you have God. You have the Thing you were writing about all those years.” As was Rick’s nature, he begrudgingly accepts truth. It’s my nature too and one of the many reasons we loved each other. We were so similar. Passionate, opinionated, a little angry, a lot cynical, and yet, under it all…deeply loving those we loved, even when we disagreed. Rick said, “Yeah I know…” and I knew how he meant it. He knew. He knew God was there with him and would be until his final earthly breath. But this was not how he wanted it to go and he was worried -he was so very worried—about Linda and the kids and his friends and all he was leaving behind. He wanted us all to be okay. He wanted Linda to be taken care of. He wanted his granddaughters not to be sad. And he wanted everyone he loved to know for sure that he loved them.
I sat there in my truck that night; the evening of April 2, 2019 and wept. My friend was gone. He wasn’t hurting anymore. He was instantly in the presence of Jesus, about Whom he’d written so many beautiful songs. But we were still here.
One year later and we are all still here. I have almost dialed his phone a dozen times this past year, wanting to tell him some funny story or just see what he’s doing. Then it hits me that he’s gone. I listen to his music all the time and remember the times I saw him live and the times we’d talk about the genius of Springsteen, or the b.s. of Springsteen. He’d rail at U2 for not being original anymore. He’d talk about what a great guitar player James Honeyman Scott was and how he’d tried to capture that “jangly” sound on his own record. He always had funny, endearing stories about working on “That Thing You Do!” and what a wonderful cast they all were, and how he enjoyed teaching them how to “act like young rockers.”
He’d talk about some famous star he’d run into in L.A. when he drove a limo while trying to bang out a record. He talked about the time his friend took him to meet Stevie Wonder in his studio in L.A. and how Stevie likes to close-talk and make you a little uncomfortable.
He’d do his flawless Bill Murray impersonation.
And then he’d inevitably tell me he loved me and I would tell him the same and we’d hang up and I’d smile and think how blessed I was that I had been permitted a friendship with Rick Elias.
Rick was soft and harsh. Sacred and profane. Fiercely loving to his friends, and yet unafraid to fire off a volley if we disagreed. The thing with Rick was this…he wore a mask, like we all do. But if you got the chance to see him without it, you couldn’t help but love him and nothing he did with the mask on, would ever change how you felt about him without it. So, you accepted the mask when he wore it, because all you really saw was the man behind it.
One year later and all I have now is the music and the memories. It’ll have to be enough until I see him again in Heaven.
I love you, my big brother. We’re all down here just trying to get by.
See you soon.