It’s 4:00am, and I’ve been awake for about ninety minutes, my mind replaying the news of twelve hours ago and thinking a lot about Andrew Quattlebaum, who lost his battle with depression on Tuesday. He was 30 years old. Andrew was a former student of mine at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, in Columbia, SC, where between 1996 and 2000 I had the distinct pleasure of serving as school chaplain, and getting to know Andrew and so many other fine young people.
I last heard from Andrew in a Facebook message exchange in December 2013. In fact, as I looked through the history of our messages, he often messaged me around Christmas time. While I haven’t been his chaplain in years, apparently I never left that role for him—he told me as much in his note. So, since I cannot be at the Trustus Theatre on February 22, in Columbia, this is what I would say at his memorial if given the chance:
A reading from the Gospel According to John [15:9-10, 12]
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love… 12‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew [21:28-31]
28[Jesus said,] ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’
Like many of you, when I received the news of Andrew’s death on Thursday, February 13, it simply didn’t seem possible to me that he could be gone at such a young age, with so much left for him to do, to give, to love. “What happened? How does this happen?” my unbelieving mind wanted to know.
Through messages with several of you and a phone call with Kent Ureda, I felt heart-broken to learn of his struggles over the past several years, and his battle with the depression that ultimately ended his life. Depression is an illness no less fatal at times than other terminal or inoperable diseases. My heart went out to him—still goes out to him—when I think of the loneliness he must have struggled with these last few months. It simply does not reconcile with the Andrew I knew, that we all knew and loved.
Andrew entered my life as a high school student at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, as he did for many of his friends. What made him such a memorable and remarkable young man was his demeanor, the way he carried himself. One could see that he truly cared for his classmates and their well-being. He simply loved others, his friends and those whom he met.
Never did I hear him say an unkind word about anyone else; he gave others the benefit of the doubt. He looked for the good in other people, and shared that good with them. His praise for and acceptance of others was genuine and sincere. He had an intellectual curiosity about him that made him a joy to have in the classroom; he also possessed a wicked sense of humor that made him a good friend among his peers. Everybody loved Andrew. We still do.
The thing about students is they graduate, and leave the halls and rooms and chapel that was once under a teacher’s care, under a chaplain’s “cure of souls,” as we in the church used to call our positions of service. Fortunately for us these days, social media helps us keep in touch more easily with people who have moved or moved on. That is how I stayed in touch with Andrew, and he with me.
This past December, on the day after Christmas, my wife and son and I traveled to Tucson to meet a family whose son was born with Down syndrome in August. Because of certain medical complications, he was still in the hospital, awaiting surgery to attach his esophagus to his stomach. Later that day, I posted a photo of my son Jonathan, a 20-year-old young man with Down syndrome, reading “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” to this other little guy with Down syndrome. Jonathan had given him a few children’s books for Christmas, and wanted to read one to him in the hospital. That night, in the comments on the photo, Andrew wrote:
Hope you guys had a great Christmas – you and your family were very much brought up and discussed with my family. Trending topics were, “the true nature of gratitude” and “how much Fr. Dombek” was both a friend and influence. Much love and Merry Christmas.
It was the last I heard from him. But there was Andrew always giving love to others, always seeking a higher place of the heart—I mean, how many 30-year-old men do you know who want to discuss “the true nature of gratitude”? Yet that is totally something Andrew would have wanted to discuss when I knew him in our Columbia days.
When I think of the loneliness Andrew must have struggled with his last few months, I think he would be amazed at the outpouring of grief and love for him that we have shared with one another since news of his death. In a text exchange with Jonathan Raymond, one of Andrew’s high school friends, I wrote
“I don’t think [Andrew] realized how much people loved him… Do any of us really understand that? Isn’t that really [George Bailey’s] dilemma in “It’s A Wonderful Life”? Andrew didn’t realize how much he touched others…”
It’s really true; he loved us so well. His life touched so many. We are all here because we were touched by that love… and to think of him gone, it hurts us so. Did he know how much we loved him? Would that have made a difference? Would he still be here had he known?
This is a hard path to travel, because it presumes we know his struggles. It is easy for us to say, “Maybe he wouldn’t have died if he knew how much we loved him.” But I believe he did know we loved him. I know that I told him how much I admired and loved him, how blessed I was to have him as a student, and now a friend as an adult. I’m sure I’m not unique in that. Over the years, you, too, have said your love for him; expressed your love to him. His death was not because of not being loved by us or knowing that love; his death came as a result of a darkness and inner struggles that we can only imagine.
Not being in his skin, in his circumstances, in his head, I can make no judgments on Andrew’s choices. None of us truly know the pain he struggled with or how it affected him, or what it robbed him of. This is what death does: it interrupts, disrupts, and breaks our hearts. But death cannot kill love. It can take away a body, but it cannot separate us from love. This is the true power that love has, and it is a power that Andrew practiced. By show of hands, how many of you have a memory wherein Andrew said he loved you? Yes, that’s what I thought. In that love, Andrew has defeated his demons. Love always wins over death.
I began this reflection with two short stories from the Gospels of John and Matthew. In the John story, Jesus is at the Last Supper with his disciples. He knows his own death is approaching—it seems that a life dedicated to love has a way of being unwelcome in this world. People do not like what Jesus has done and said, and they want to get rid of him. Seeing that his own death is near, what does he do at his final meal with his followers? He asks them to love.
“9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love… 12‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
This is the kind of life that Andrew lived: a life of love for people, his friends, those whom Andrew just met, and those whom God brought into Andrew’s life so that he could love them. Andrew had unconditional love for others. There was purity about it. In his love, we see how God loves, and that is a holy gift we received from Andrew.
The second story I share for a specific reason: to assure you of Andrew’s acceptance by God. Like always, Jesus told a story to make a point:
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’
Andrew’s life of faith may not have looked like ours, but it would be unwise for us to say he had no life of faith because of that. Just because Andrew didn’t “do the will of the Father” how others did—worship God the way they worship, express his beliefs they way they express their beliefs—doesn’t mean he didn’t labor in the vineyard. Anyone who loved as unconditionally and wholly as Andrew did certainly labored in this vineyard we call “Life.” In that respect, Andrew did the will of the Father.
In the way that he loved, Andrew kept the new commandment that Jesus gave: “Love one another as I have loved you;” and I believe that will not be taken away from him. God’s grace covers Andrew, and all of us, of this we can be certain. We can all learn from Andrew what it means to live that grace out in one’s life: Death may try to say, “You lose,” but God’s love and grace always says, “No, you win.” By God’s love and grace, Andrew has scored a victory over depression and death.
Years ago, a friend I made when I moved to Greenville, SC, shared a quote with me that I believe speaks to this moment. It comes from the pen of Henri Frédéric Amiel, who was a Swiss philosopher, poet and critic of the 19th century. He wrote:
“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”
I don’t know if Andrew knew this Amiel quote, but I believed he lived it. I think he would say, “Yes, that’s what I was doing. That was my experience.” And all of us who knew him, we tasted that love. We drank deeply from his face, his kind eyes, and his welcoming smile. And wasn’t it sweet while it lasted?
And so, in “the true nature of gratitude,” we give thanks today. We give thanks for the gift of knowing Andrew as a friend and companion on this journey we have shared. We give thanks for Andrew’s victory over this mortal life, dark journey at times that it is; and we pray that in God’s good time, and by God’s unconditional love and grace, Andrew’s victory may be our victory, as well.