Gary Goren

I wrote this in November of this year shortly after my Uncle Gary passed. I’ve not posted it because I wanted some feedback from my Aunt Nancy or Gary’s step-daughter and my cousin, Nadine. Both have been silent until I received a letter from my Aunt today. I am posting her letter here before I complete this post with my comments, “It’s quiet here now that Gary’s gone. His leaving was as dramatic an exit as you might expect of him. The week before he died we were exercising at LA Fitness – elliptical bike, stationary bike, 7 laps in the pool, and some weight lifting. When I came home from art class the next week on Election Day, he said we needed to go to the hospital because he was having difficulty breathing. He was diagnosed with diverticulitis, which had become infected and pushing up on his lungs.

Meanwhile, Ben and his fiancé, Misa, were planning a wedding on Saturday. Family; my brother Robert from New Jersey, Nadine, and George from Spokane, and Gary’s cousin, Ted, were coming for the wedding. Friday morning at 2 am, the hospital called to say they were transferring him to a Phoenix hospital where he could be treated better. Ben and I immediately went to find Gary hallucinating and having difficulty breathing. By mid-morning Ben and Misa decided that they should get married right there. They called “Mo,” seat mate of Ben’s in the Phoenix College Orchestra and Appeals Court Judge, to have him marry them in the hospital. The attending physician gave Gary a pressure breathing treatment and he was attentive during the wedding ceremony.

Following the ceremony Gary and Mo had an extended conversation with stories and highlights of their lives. We had a party, which was too loud for the other patients in the ICU. “Close the door please.”

However, Gary wasn’t getting better and said he wanted to go home. It’s not easy to escape the hospital when you’re so very ill. However, at Gary’s insistence, and with our consent the machinery for Gary’s release from the hospital was agreed upon. “You know you can die?” “Yes.”

Meanwhile, your dad was staying at our house and he knew what to do to prepare for Gary’s return home. We arrived home at 5:00 pm. Gary asked Ben to make some chicken soup. He refused the Oxygen. Other family had come and gone and when Robert went to get some supplies I was alone with Gary. With a relaxed breath, he left at 7 pm, Veterans Day.”

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It’s one thing to blather on over espresso and Galois cigarettes about the value of loving enemies. No less easy is being all wise in Sunday School small groups. These are the expected orthodoxies of anyone who has had even a passing encounter with nominal Christian thought.

Actuality. Someone who is an insult to your own orthodoxies. Now how do you feel about Matthew 5:38-43, You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[h] let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[i] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Don’t lie. Measured against how you feel about *him*, the bible quote seems stupid, absurd even. It’s not fair.

Gary stepped on all my orthodoxy’s. He was a stain on the pages of the book I carry in my heart which says that good people work the same white-collar union job for decades and retire comfortably with a nice pension. Measured against my childhood ideas of what a man is, Gary defies.

Gary ruins the cautionary tale of my parents that if I didn’t study hard in school, get good grades, graduate from college with an acceptable degree, I’d end up digging ditches. It wasn’t ditches. It was dishes. Quickly, dish-washing in a busy restaurant is non-trivial. It is skilled labor. My parents, college graduates both, have no idea. Gary and I, we are the wrong example to give if you are wagging your finger at a recalcitrant child who is nonplussed at your threatening lecture about working harder in school. It came out OK for us.

That Gary could follow his whim for eighty odd years, have careers that had fits & starts, and fight God to a draw, that makes him a hero to me. It is the rare one that can order God around and not have singe marks down ones back from getting zotted. Gary did that. Remember this? “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children,[a] and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b]for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Most pastor’s will tell that Jacob’s battle was one and done. Most will tell it as a warning against battling with God. Here is the thing, though–Jacob won. Gary maybe didn’t win but he gave as good as he got.

I have met people like my Uncle. They are cocksure that the world is supposed to be some certain way, amenable to them, and if we would just go ahead and come correct, that would be great. The world I live in takes delight in being defiant, in not coming correct. People like my uncle have trouble with my world because it is at odds with the way it ought to be. Yet my uncle was at odds with another narrative, the one that says a good man will graduate college into a career and a marriage and not be any trouble. He was trouble, yet he never divorced and was a father to two children.

A lot of us are humbled by Matthew 10:9-10Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics[a] or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” Also, Psalm 84:3 and Matthew 10:31. How are these things possible? How does it happen that someone could be aimless, not do the expected, yet live to an old age and be a blessing to those around him? That’s now how the story is told. It isn’t what parents tell their under performing kids. We are not of the fat part of the curve. No, we are at the uncomfortable end, where there are dissidents, crazy people, addicts and those who gave up the wide path to live and serve us who still live near the shores of the river Styx. People like myself and my uncle Gary.

Some paraphrased highlights of Gary’s life from his step-daughter, Nadine: “Gary was a classical trumpeter. He played with the Bolshoi Ballet on its tour in the US in the 1960’s. The travel was too much for him. His next career was social work, often with recovering alcoholics. Gary met my mother in a training seminar. Other jobs he held included administering psychological tests and flight instructing. He also devoted himself to woodworking and cooking. Even though he never really settled in to a career he and my Mom were able to buy a condo in South San Francisco. Gary commanded the room, larger than life, the center of attention, the master story-teller, bon vivant. He had a quick, insightful mind. He was truly brilliant.”

My Uncle Gary is the actual grace, the mercy shown by God to a man for whom it could be said, did it wrong. It is popular to say that God’s blessings are confined to saved Christians, that the rest of the world is damned to hell. Well then, what of my uncle and my aunt? In all my time reading the bible I haven’t found the commandment that says, “Oh, it’s ok. I understand that the world makes you anxious. Here, let me make it all better. Eat some soup.” What I find is an ornery God who abounds with love and absurdity. He leaves us with a book that is nuts. He tells a story of martyrdom and a resurrected kingdom that lives in the hearts of his followers. He doesn’t do anything amenable to us yet those who trust in him come out ok. And sometimes, even for those who don’t follow him, who seem undeserving of mercy, he does my Uncle Gary and just confounds us.

My Uncle Gary isn’t my hero because he parked himself on the fat part of the curve, was on all the admirable committees, reliably gave his tithe and went to confession weekly. Nope, my Uncle Gary is my hero because he is proof that God’s mercy is for all of us, even the ones that frustrate those around them with a life of unexpected orthodoxies.