There were ushers in the lobby, tall, graying men in dark suits who looked like bankers and wore blue name tags as they handed out the programs. There were teenaged boys in suits and girls in school uniforms. There were adults in somber colors, and a sanctuary awash with yellow light as the late-afternoon sun poured through stained-glass.
There were young acolytes in red surplices bearing candles and a cross on long brass poles. There were priests in long white robes and the family — wife, daughters, son, daughter-in-law, sons-in-law, grandchildren — all in black.
And at the front of the sanctuary was a polished box of fine-grained wood with golden handles that contained the ashes of Michael Arthur Worden Evans.
Evans was a photojournalist whose beatific photo of Ronald Reagan in cowboy hat appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People. For six years, he was Reagan’s personal photographer, an assignment that included a brush with death when John Hinckley Jr. fired several shots at the president outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1981. Thirty-four years later, he was dead of cancer at 61.
Michael and his wife were neighbors and friends of a woman I dated, and we saw them socially several times. Michael was clever and bright, and well-read and deeply attached to the news. His was a world of ideas, of intellect, of conventional wisdom and traditional values. He watched the flux of events and took it personally when things were not good.
But he was also a private man, sociable to a point, but guarded and edgy, and when his tolerance ran out he would stand up and announce it was time to go. I wish I could say I knew him better, but as his son Drew said. "My father was not an easy man to know."
The Episcopalian ceremony consisted in large part of passages read by the minister with responses from the mourners. While it seemed at the time unnecessarily long, I came to appreciate the logic of it. In the call-and-response, the standing and sitting, the speaking and singing, the prayer and the silence, there is structure and familiarity, a sense of continuity that is itself a kind of emotional handrail for the bereaved to cling to. Within the ritualistic acknowledgement of loss, there is also the understanding that life goes on, and an opportunity to begin the healing.
While Michael wasn’t a particularly spiritual man — he wanted proof, not speculation — my friend counseled him intensively in his final days and felt he had come to terms with God.
The Rev. Peter Gorday said during his homily that for years Michael’s wife and daughters regularly took communion, but that Michael refused to budge from his pew. "It’s not my time," he would tell Gorday, adding that while he accepted the idea of God, he had problems with "the Jesus stuff."
"I said, ‘You mean the mythology of Christ, Michael?’ said Gorday. "And he said, ‘No, Peter, the Jesus stuff.’"
Gorday said that as a photographer Michael waited for "the moment that was real," and so it was with his spirituality. His illness generated a tremendous outpouring of love and support that amazed Michael and convinced him that God was reaching out to him.
In the last year of his life, Gorday said, when it came time for communion, Michael would rise with his family, weak and unsteady, and allow his daughters to escort him to the rail where he took the bread and wine.
During her eulogy, 20-year-old daughter Abbie said that the family went to Sea Island last summer, and that one day Michael decided to go into the ocean. They entered the water, Abbie and sister Madelyn on either side, helping Michael as he jumped over or dove beneath the waves. She realized later that they had come full circle. As children, they had clung to their father when they entered the ocean. Now he was clinging to them.
Son Drew, a mild and gentle man of 36, said that his father’s celebrity had come "at a cost" to relationships with his first family. He also admitted, without acrimony, that he and his father had not gotten along well in Michael’s last year.
"But I loved my father," he said. "I wish I’d had more time to get to know him."
Drew and Michael had also disagreed about music: Michael liked country, Drew preferred rock ‘n’ roll. In closing, the son did something brave and unusual, a touching gesture of conciliation to his father.
Clearing his throat, he muttered, "I don’t know how this is gonna sound." Then, in a strong but not particularly musical voice he sang the ending of his father’s favorite song: "Country road, take me home/to the place I belong/West Virginia mountain mama/take me home…country road."
Michael’s ashes were interred in the church garden.
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