Being the newest returnee to my hometown meant that I was drafted to preside over planning the upcoming class reunion. A few months later it meant that I was standing in front of the class to say a few words about a classmate and friend who had died too early after a battle with cancer.
What I remember saying is that you can't think of him without a smile coming to your face and that there is no better evidence of a life well lived.
I believed it as I said it. It was what came to mind as I stood up. And there were smiles on my classmates' faces as I sat down, proving it was true.
But, later, I worried that I had short changed his memory and diminished his life. Because the smiles were largely for high jinks. The seventh grader acting up in class or explaining to the rest of us the specifics about sex. The high schooler who was always a little more willing to do what the rest of us hung back at. The college kid, drinking too much, studying too little, flunking out. The adult, still with a lot of kid in him, entertaining the rest of us with stories, or doing the unexpected.
I found myself wondering why I hadn't mentioned his accomplishments. After all, this was a man who went on to build a successful business, owned patents, raised a family proudly and well, and faced cancer with determination and grit.
He was a man who reached heights that we might not have predicted. He did good deeds and managed to keep a family farm in the family. And I hadn't mentioned any of it.
But even as I was thinking I had failed to do him justice, I found myself smiling. Remembering the good time we had on a ski trip, as adults--five classmates who came together from four different states--who left our kids at home and spent a week laughing and enjoying ourselves, skiing into trees and each other, with him as head cheerleader.
I remembered how he bucked the common wisdom of planting fields of corn or soybeans and planted fields of sunflowers that turned the country roads into destinations for family pictures.
I remembered how, when he was sick, I still sought him out to sit next to on the splintered bleachers of track meets where our daughters were competing. Not because he was sick, but because I enjoyed his company. How groups of guys in our class visited him often when he was bedridden, reliving old victories and conquests, and leaving with a smile, despite a deep sadness.
"Come here. Let me lighten your load," he might have said.
Leaving smiles in his wake.