24 March 2012

Saying Goodbye to George


You could have retired
    to the sound of trains
    and made all your stories
    include lessons about
    going off the rails
        and getting sidetracked.

You could have built houses,
    shaping habitat for others,
    sheltering dreams
    that go beyond
a final resting place.

You could have---
    but that's a longer story
    than we could tell here.

Instead, you came to prison
    and fell in love
    with characters
who had gone
    off the rails
    longed to go straight
    and designed hopes that
    tumble down.

Everywhere you went
    you bragged about
    being on the inside.
You laughed at the shocked looks.

"It's the best place I've ever been,
    --the best place I've ever worked
    --the best experience I ever had."

George, you were the best thing that
    ever happened to us,
    a persistent gift,
    a faithful love.

We already miss you.   

Shannon O'Donnell, March 2012.

George's Memorial Mass was held yesterday in the parish where he spent his later years with his wife, Nancy. Friends and coworkers from the Forestry Service and trains gathered on a bright spring morning that was warm with the fragrance of new grass and early flowers. George died January 23 and in the weeks between then and now, his body was taken by train back to Pennsylvania where his children and grandchildren live and he was buried there.

When George died in January, the weather was cold, rainy some days, snowy others. It was miserable. Now it is spring. We seemed to need the time to get used to the fact that George has gone to something new.

George became a volunteer at the prison when he was well into retirement. Prison might have been new, but his concern for others was lifelong. Habitat for Humanity, the local food bank, and many other things had been a big deal for him. To the men in the prison, he was almost a dad or a good uncle. He saw without judgment, spoke without scolding, and loved them deeply. For men trying to make sense of their lives, attempting change on a grand scale, George offered them a chance to see a life lived with joy and service. He became a gift beyond measure.

One of the last books George read was Fr. Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart. The stories about former gang members remaking their lives resonated with him and reminded him of the men in prison. He recommended it more than a few times to his friends. It's a suggestion I pass on to you. Thank God for people like George who teach us that hearts are made to be broken and loved in all that brokenness.


Allison said...

Shannon: THis is just so lovely. Thank you thank you. I love your last line.

Fran said...

Prayers for the peace and rest of George, gathered deeply into the heart of God. Prayers of consolation, healing and peace for all who loved him - I'm guessing that this is many.

Thank you for your words about him Shannon, so beautifully put. And Tattoos on the Heart, what a remarkable book, written by a remarkable man, writing about remarkable people. Broken and loved in brokenness. That is the best Eucharistic theology.

Geoff Cain said...

Lovely poem - thank you. - Geoff