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Spend Time With Those You Love While You Can

barbara gerencser 1978
Mom and Bruce, Rochester, Indiana, 1978

The redheaded preacher stood before his church, preparing to preach as he had done countless times before. This Sunday was just like every other Sunday — until it wasn’t. His expositional sermon was well-received by the fifty or so people in attendance. Most of them would return a few hours later for Sunday evening service; another opportunity to hear from God and fellowship with God’s people.

The preacher, along with his wife and five children, lived in a 12’x60′ mobile home that sat on the southern edge of the church parking lot. His wife had already walked from the church to their home so she could prepare dinner, wondering, “Will he invite someone to dinner?” She never knew who would be eating dinner with them. Her preacher husband loved to fellowship with church members. She just wished he would plan in advance.

On this particular Sunday, there were no extras for dinner. As the preacher’s wife set the table, the phone rang. It was the preacher’s aunt. “Just a minute, I’ll get him.” By then, the preacher was almost to their home. “Your aunt is on the phone.”

“Hmm,” the preacher wondered, “why is she calling me?”


“Butch.” (a family nickname given at birth).

“Your mom killed herself.”

The preacher’s mom lived in Quincy, Michigan — five or so hours away. His mom has taken a Ruger .357 revolver, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger — shooting herself in her heart. She quickly slumped to the bathroom floor, and in a few moments, she was dead.

The preacher’s mom’s lifelong battle with mental illness came to an end. Numerous suicide attempts had come before this one: prescription drug overdoses, slit wrists, and driving a car into the path of a truck. (Please see Barbara.) Her prior attempts failed, but not the last one. Why she chose to kill herself on this fateful day remains unknown. Decades of physical and psychological pain certainly played a big part, but the preacher wondered if there was more to her sudden suicide. He would never know, of course, because the woman who taught him to read, instilled in him a passion for truth, and modeled to him standing up for yourself, was dead. The moment she pulled the trigger everything changed.

The preacher planned his mom’s funeral. No viewing, no dealing with countless well-wishers and glad-handers. His siblings viewed their mom’s corpse, but the preacher chose not to. He wanted to remember her as she was — a beautiful, passionate, complicated, contradictory woman.

On the appointed day, the family gathered at Fountain Grove Cemetery for the graveside service. The preacher’s mom had written in her Bible that she wanted her preacher son — whom she had never heard preach — to take care of her funeral. She also wanted her grandchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the Star Spangled Banner. These requests were ignored.

Family and a few friends gathered at the graveside, right next to Grandma and Grandpa Rausch’s graves. There was not enough room to bury the preacher’s mom, so his grandmother was disinterred so the vault could be dug deep enough to accommodate two coffins, one on top of the other.

“Why did Mom want me to do her funeral?” the preacher wondered. The preacher delivered a brief sermon, complete with Bible readings and prayer — weeping the entire time. A moment after the benediction, there was one more indignity to be had. The preacher’s Fundamentalist Baptist grandfather (John) and his wife (Ann) were in attendance, and John wanted to have the last word. (Please see Life with My Fundamentalist Baptist Grandparents, John and Ann Tieken.) As everyone stood there with broken hearts, John decided to give a sermon of his own. Of course, he did. Whatever his grandson did was never good enough. A few years prior, John and Ann had driven to southeast Ohio to visit their oldest grandson and his family. These visits were never welcome, and a few years later, the preacher ended his relationship with John and Ann. On this particular day, the preacher delivered a sermon to 150 or so people in attendance. At the conclusion of the service, the preacher’s grandfather stood up and told the entire congregation what was wrong with his grandson’s sermon. The preacher wanted to die; that is, right after he murdered his grandfather.

As the preacher’s grandfather deconstructed his daughter’s life at the graveside, homicidal thoughts briefly returned to the preacher’s mind. He wanted to tell everyone who would listen that John had repeatedly raped his daughter as a child; that he physically abused his sons (and spouses); that he was an angry, abusive man — even after Jesus allegedly “saved” him. John and Ann may have loved Jesus, but they most certainly didn’t love their daughter. “Maybe they were broken too,” the preacher wonders. Regardless, these sums-a-bitches are responsible for their behavior, as are all of us.

Death irreversibly ends relationships. All we have left are memories — good, bad, and indifferent. The preacher deeply loved his mom, but rarely took time to express that to her. On the day of her suicide, it had been months since to talked to her and saw her face to face. There were plans in the works for the preacher to take his children to Michigan to spend a week with their grandmother. Alas, a bullet put an end to that idea.

The preacher was a busy man. He had a church to pastor and a school to operate. Yet, none of that mattered as he pondered the life of his mom and their relationship with each other. He wished he had been a better son. He wished he had visited his mom more often. He wished he had called her every week to see how she was doing. But, he didn’t, and now she was dead.

The preacher is now sixty-six years old. In failing health, he knows his days are numbered. His children and grandchildren live near him. Rarely does a week or two go by that he doesn’t see most of them. Yet, there are those nights when he sits alone, wishing one of his children would stop by for a visit. The preacher can no longer drive, so he must rely on people coming to him or taking him to school events. He hates depending on others.

He knows his children and their significant others and his grandchildren have their own lives to live too. Everyone is busy these days, yet he can’t help but think about that moment over thirty years ago when the phone rang and the voice on the line said “Butch, your mom killed herself.” He knows there is coming a day when the phone will ring at his children’s homes, and the voice on the line will say, “Your dad (grandfather) is dead.” He knows what hearing those words can to do you, the regrets that flood your mind.

When the end comes, the preacher knows that his family will be there for him — not for money (there is none); not for material goods (most everything has already been given to them); but for love. In the present, all he wants (and needs) is as much time from them as they can possibly give. Not selfishly, of course, but he knows there is coming a day when the relationship the preacher has with his family will come to an end; that all that will be left are memories. The preacher wants to leave behind as many good memories as he possibly can.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Experiences in your life made me relive similar events in my own and this is one more.. Your admonition to spend time with loved ones while you can is good advice. I’d add be generous with affection for loved ones, and freely tell them you love them while they are alive to hear it. The words I love you are awkward for some of us who never heard them when we needed them. They can be so important to hear. I am quick say those words now if I have any excuse at all. One never knows how much good they may do.

  2. Avatar


    I haven’t been a regular reader though I’ve been around reading off and on for years.

    You’re a good human. We’ve never met, yet you impact so many.

    I’ve learned to freely tell those I love that I love them. I’m sorry your mother suffered so much. I can imagine, based on my life experiences.

    I hope you can make many, many more good memories with your family. You hate depending on others, I understand. I think perhaps that this can be a gift of love from them to you. As hard as it is to receive, thats another expression of how they want to be there for you out of love.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, I am glad that you have people who love you, and whom you love, within reach (more or less). There are also many more of us whom you probably never will meet. We love—how can we not?

    As someone who has lost people (though not family members) to suicide, I know how it feels to say, “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Perhaps there were moments when we could have been with, or done for, that person. But there were also hurts and traumas we can’t fix. You did what you knew how to do at that time in your life; at the end of hers, you certainly did more than her parents did to honor her.

    All we can do is love those who are still with us.

  4. Avatar
    W.W. Jacobs

    I happened to go back and review some older blog posts of He Who Shall Not Be Named and I came across the post he made on the occasion of his father’s passing. One reason (of two) he gave for not being able to attend his father’s funeral related to (paraphrased) a legal matter (presumably not the ones we’ve spoken of).

    Whatever else I may think of him, I imagine it would be a powerful read if he were ever willing to be as vulnerable as you have been and share his thoughts on that time of his life, and perhaps, whether the choices he has made were worth not being able to say goodbye to his father. I don’t say that to be snarky. I once read that a boy doesn’t truly become a man until his father dies, and such is true even of him. It’s a bit of insight I would genuinely like to have into who he is.

    Fortunately, I have good genes in that regard. My father has passed the 3/4 century mark and is still generally cruising along. My grandfather lived to be 84. His father lived into his 80s, even having to live with COPD for nearly 60 years. (He took advantage of the US government offering him citizenship in exchange for serving in WWI, not realizing that, as an immigrant and non-citizen, his unwritten MOS was “cannon fodder” until he took the brunt of a mustard-gas attack.)

    Conversely, my maternal grandfather died (heart disease) while my mom was still in high school. On my most recent birthday, it occurred to me that I have now outlived him. Which was better than when I turned 39 and realized I had outlived one of my heroes, Harry Chapin, while having nowhere near the impact that he had on the world, but I digress.

    When my grandfather passed, we knew it was coming. He had fallen at home a week prior, was bleeding into his brain, and the only treatment option was surgery, which he had less than a 50/50 chance of surviving, so the decision was made to let nature take its course. I called him, from 2000 miles away, less than 12 hours before he died. He couldn’t speak, but he was otherwise coherent, and my cousin had me on speaker.

    My grandfather being a product of his time, expressions of emotion didn’t come easily to him. (I was 15 the first time I saw him kiss my grandmother.) High praise from him was him saying, “Ya done good!” I talked in circles for a few minutes, trying to force myself to say what was on my heart. Instead what I came up with was, “Ya done good, Grandpa. You tell Grandma we said hello. We’ll be okay. Ya done good.” My cousin later told me that his face said that he understood the message. It was the best I could do to be there for him in his final hours, and I am grateful to have availed myself of the opportunity.

    Speaking of talking in circles … anyway, Bruce, the world is a better place for you being in it. We, the regulars of this board, I believe we are better people for having you in our lives. Even if you and I may not agree on what follows this life, I certainly feel my world is better with you in it. I hope that knowledge accompanies you on the way to whatever does come next, and I hope that journey is, for you, as far in the future as is practical.

  5. Avatar

    This was moving.

    Many in my family are gone – my grandparents, my mom and stepdad, a cousin to suicide…… There’s always “would could should”. We do the best we can. Is it ever enough? I don’t know, but I am more mindful these days.

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