This morning Carl Kleis died, such a dear man, such a good man. I can’t stop crying. He was not young – in his 80’s – and he lived a good life, and he had an aggressive cancer that he decided not to treat. He knew he was dying and so did we; he had just gone into hospice last week. But somehow I thought we had more time. Or maybe time has nothing to do with it; maybe I would be this sad regardless. It’s just hard to imagine that I will never see him again – that smile, that wit, that deep deep goodness.
I don’t know if I believe in heaven, but if there is such a place, Carl is with his beloved wife Helen now, and that is certainly more consolation than I should need.
And yet I cry.
Grief is a funny thing, no? Irrational, sporadic, sudden.
Carl and Helen came to worship at my church, Old First Reformed United Church of Christ after Carl retired from being the pastor of a Dutch Reformed church in the suburbs for over 30 years. They came to us specifically because they were looking for a more progressive, open-minded congregation to spend their retirement in. For many years, Carl worked as a volunteer Minister of Visitation for Old First, visiting shut-ins and bringing them communion. He was, in so many ways, a blessing to us.
Because he was on staff, and so is Julie (as the music director), we were once at a staff dinner together at our former pastor’s house. This was when Helen was still alive, and Trixie was a little girl, about three years old. I was newly pregnant, but we had not told anyone yet, wanting to wait until I was through the first trimester. But Trixie knew, which was maybe a mistake, because at this dinner, she spilled the beans and we had to come clean: yes, we were expecting! Carl and Helen, along with Geneva, our former pastor, were all SO EXCITED with us! It was such fun, to share that secret with them for awhile.
Then, when I miscarried, and then miscarried again six months later, Helen was such a dear and kind confidant, sharing with me about her own miscarriages, and consoling me in a way that only a woman who has been through that and come out the other side can.
Helen and Carl eventually built a beautiful family through adoption, and when we too turned to adoption – my own prospects for carrying a child to term having been given at about a million to one – they wrote us a letter of recommendation as part of our home study. (The other letter was written by our neighbors Jayne and Michael, Jayne having herself been adopted.)
While we waited for a baby, Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and just after Micah joined our family, as a tiny little 33 week preemie, all of 4 pounds, 12 ounces, she died. In the weeks leading up to her death, Trixie, who was in kindergarten, sent her letters telling her about her adventures in school and in our neighborhood. Her funeral was the first of a long string my children have been to. Micah was so tiny and cried whenever I put him down; he screamed in his car seat the whole way out to the suburbs, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, buddy, I feel like screaming too.”
I’m not even sure why, but one of Carl’s passions was LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. In 2004, when the hateful Republicans were stirring up their base with talk of a federal marriage amendment, I organized a series of interfaith vigils at the constitution center, and Carl was one of the many vocal and outspoken members of Old First who faithfully attended those vigils. Just about nothing could get him going with such heat as this issue. And of course, I just loved him for it.
But he was also kind, and gentle, and funny. He made us peanut brittle every year at Christmas, and never failed to remind us what a beautiful family we have.
I will miss you so, Carl. Rest in peace.