Willie Mae Samuel

Willie Mae Samuel, founder and director of the African American Connection for the Performing Arts in Rome

I am not intending this discussion to be morbid, but hopefully a thoughtful insight brought on by an exchange while at a funeral. I just recently attended the home-going services of a dear friend. Lately, as I have attended home-going services of friends who have been so dear and true, I have been asking myself an important question. “What kind of friend have you been to her or him?” My answer usually falls short of being able to answer with a convincing, “Yes, I have been just as good a friend to him/her as he or she was to me, or even better,” when I realize that my deposits into the friendship have not been to the level of my withdrawals.

It is at that time that I say I will do better with the friends and family who are left. At the funeral of my dear friend Betty Whitaker, who passed the same time that a few other dear friends (in heart and mind only), John McCain and Aretha Franklin, transitioned, many thoughts of doing better and making more spiritual, emotional, social and financial deposits in the relationships of family and friends I have left. As we stood on the sideline and watched or even witnessed the slow and painful transitioning of these three special individuals, what we saw should have changed us from the inside out. The outpouring of love and support that the three families received after the death of their loved ones was amazing. Love and support poured in from people and places that were unimaginable after their transition.

After the home-going services of Ma Betty, I reported to the dining-hall and just as I was beginning to apron-up to serve the family in the repast line, this very handsome gentleman stepped up and caught me by the arm and said, “I would like to have a word with you.” He pulled me aside and said “This is very serious, and I want you to listen carefully to what I have to say.” He was not smiling, but had a most intense and sincere look of seriousness on his face. I could tell that this was a time for me to become the child and he the parent or teacher.

I quickly recognized him to be Chuck Whitaker, and by this time he had led me away from all ears. Chuck went on to say, “This is for you and you alone. I have concluded that you need to hear this from me today and at this very moment. I do not want to stand in front of a casket and tell you this when you are not able to hear me. I do not want to write beautiful, flowery, uplifting words to you when you are unable to read them. I do not want to send fragranced flowers to you that you will be unable to smell. I do not want to wait and stop by your house in remembrance of you when you have already joined the celestial group beyond the sun.”

He continued to talk and when he thought that I was not where he was thought-wise, he gently squeezed my hand. He went on to say, “Mrs. Samuel, let me thank you on this day while you are up, walking around, appearing to be the picture of health. We must stop waiting to express to others what they have meant to us on this side of the sun. When you were in my life as a teacher … and even the friendship that you had with my mom and the rest of the family have been so very impactful on my life, and it has left a lasting impression on me personally. Each day I have an opportunity, I truly mean each day, to recall and use some of the wisdom and love that you shared with me years ago. I want you to hear this expression of gratitude from my mouth on this day. Now, let me hug you so that when and if I stand in front of your casket one day, I will be able to say I held you just enough in this life time to make up for all the times in the future when I will not be able to hug you again. I am returning to California, but please remember what I have said to you this day. There is not a day that passes when I am not confronted with a situation that gives me an opportunity to share a part of you that has become a part of me. Many times I think it is the internal thoughts coming directly from your head into my head.”

He hugged me one last time with the same serious look that he had as he was speaking and went his way in the fellowship hall. I never saw him anymore that evening and truly had no need to do so. He had left his mark of love and respect on my heart just as he said I did on him many years earlier.

I took my place in the serving line and served with joy, greeting and serving the family and friends, realizing I would never serve this group again under these circumstances, not forgetting what my now wise, former student had shared with me about life. He reinforced the belief that I have always held dear that we leave a trace of ourselves on everyone we encounter on this side of the sun. We alone determine whether that trace will be positive or negative.

Should we have more funerals on this side of the sun?

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome.

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