My Words of Love on Loving Men
Charles R. Lawrence III
This tribute to Wes was presented by Charles Lawrence III, Wes’ uncle, at the East coast Celebration of Wes’ Life held on March 6th at the Lang Music Building at Swarthmore College.
When Paula called and asked me to speak this afternoon she found me, as one often does, in the midst of parenting. Mari and I had just picked up Kimi and Paul at a gym where they had spent the day at sports camp. It was President’s Day – a day off for DC public schools – but not for these parents. We had deposited our children at the gym that morning and now at the end of the day I was joyful at the sight of their smiling faces but also exhausted and not a little bit impatient and preoccupied as Paul and I made a last call pit stop at the men’s room before heading home. My cell phone rang and when I answered, I heard Paula’s voice.
“Chuckie, It’s Paul.”
The sound of my sister’s voice transported me to another place. I pictured all of the many times that she and Johnny stood in this end-of-the-day place – hugging their lovely boys, asking how the day went, looking to eyes and body language, listening to tone of voice for some hint that would reveal more than their sons’ mono-syllable answer, thinking about the stop at the grocery store on the way home, what they’d make for dinner and the work to be done after the boys were in bed. In this moment of silence, before either of us spoke again, I heard Paula’s urgent, angry, loving voice crying out to me.
“Forget the exhaustion and the impatience, Chuckie. Screw the homework and tomorrow’s lecture. Just love those babies before it’s too late.”
“Chuckie?” Paula’s voice pulled me back from my thoughts to the phone. “Johnny and I would like you to speak at Wes’s memorial.”
“Of course I will,” I said.
“I thought I’d call you now so that you could give some ‘unsystematic thought to it’ as Dad would say.” Paula’s invocation of my father’s voice is a loving family joke on him and an allusion to the ways I am like him. “I thought you could talk about Johnny and Dad and Abe. You know what we want, Chuckie.”
In these days of raw, unimaginable pain and sadness for Paula, I am desperate to find a way to reach out and hold my little sister – to bring her some balm for this deep, deep wound.
“Yes,” I said, “I can do that.”
This is Paula’s wonderful way – to look straight at me (even through a telephone), and ask me to do something for her, for us, something simple and very hard – to tell me she knows that I can find within me the way to bring some small piece of what she needs to this time and place – to trust in me and our love to find some way to hold her and John and Abe – to tell her again the story of her wondrously beautiful man-child and the beautiful men who love him.
The story I will tell is shaped by pictures from my memories. Many of you will recognize these pictures as my memory assisted by several of John’s photographs of Wes.
A Picture from the Homestead
Charles Lawrence II, DAD, Papa, Grandpa Charles – handsome, brilliant, passionate Mississippi Man – sleeps in his favorite chair. His first born grandchild sleeps on his chest. This is a love affair for all time. I have never seen my father more filled with joy and peace. Wes’s head is nestled just below the white of Papa’s beard. Dad’s strong, beautiful giant hand rests on Wes’s small back. No place feels more safe and secure than the shelter of the man’s arms. I know, for I have slept in that same place. I am drawn to the hands in this picture. Wes’s hand spread on Papa’s chest, mirroring the hand that hold’s him secure, presaging the beautiful strong hands that Wes will have as a man.
There was so much in Wes that carried Dad’s spirit – his gift and love for music, his confidence and generosity, his uncompromising principle. Dad was more outgoing and gregarious. You could hear his voice and laugh across a crowded room. But what he shared with Wes ran deeper. You see it in the strong and gentle hands and in the quite love of this picture’s embrace.
A Picture from the Wehmiller’s Home in Swarthmore
Wes is standing by a table filled with electric trains. He is standing on a chair so that he can see and operate the trains. Johnny is standing just behind him watching and only occasionally leaning over to quietly point to an engine or a building – to tell Wes something about its history or its mechanics or to ask Wes if he remembers when and where they saw a real engine that this is modeled after. Perhaps John is not in this photograph — he may well have taken it – but I see him there because this is how Johnny was with Wes and Abe – standing behind, close so they could feel his warm strength – quietly letting them discover the excitement and beauty of his passions for themselves – trains big and small, matchbox cars and trucks, lighthouses, coastlines, mountains and riverbeds, bikes and riding them. When a fellow photographer asked Wes who had inspired his brilliant photography he answered, “My Dad.” And you could see it in his work – the love of the aesthetic and the love of mastery of technique. There is a wonderful pair of photographs, taken by John and Wes – each shooting a picture of the other – sighting down the rails of the track between them — each intensely regarding the other and the planet’s beauty.
When Kimi and Paul visited Uncle John and Aunt Paula several weeks ago before Wes died, my son Paul could not contain his excitement. This was his chance to stand on the chair as Wes did while John quietly let him discover John and Wes’s passion. John took a picture of Paul during that visit that looks so much like the original picture of Wes. Paul has Wes’s same expression of complete concentration. I can feel John’s quiet presence – watching, listening to my son, letting him discover just as he did with Wes and Abe. There is another picture from several Christmases ago. Abe sits with my son Paul and his first set of trains. His head and body are in the same quiet relation to Paul – watching, listening, letting him learn to love.
A Picture from our Home in DC
At our home in Washington DC, there is a wall filled with photographs of our family from Mari’s side and mine. At either end of this gallery hangs a black and white photo, one of Wes and the other of Abe. They stand like bookends — young, handsome sentries standing guard over the precious souls between them. West stands with his electric bass, leaning casual and cool against a fence. Abe is dressed in racing gear – head and shoulders rising over the roof of a car that carries his bike. At the middle of this gallery, hanging next to a picture of John, Paula and lovely, wise Stewart, hangs another picture of Wes and Abe. They are standing together – Wes’s feet apart, arms folded across his chest, a knit shirt open at the collar, his hair falling to his shoulders. Abe stands beside him, short cropped hair, a blue dress shirt and a red tie – ultra cool on his way to Duke. Abe stands at a jaunty angle to Wes’s solid frame – one leg crossed behind the other – his left elbow resting on his brother’s shoulder. They are smiling at the camera with a look that says, “Hey, this is my brother, my lifetime A- team. Give us the best you’ve got.”
Wes and I shared the joys and burdens of big brotherhood, but I have two wondrous sisters and can only guess at the special mystery and bond of a brother’s love. We watched these two lovely, rollicking, joyous, hard driving, laughing, lovely boys grow to men together. Each his own person – with different walk and talk – each owning unique brilliance and style but joined in spirit. It was always Wes and Abe, as if one could not say one’s name without the other’s sounding in your head. Theirs is a love that grew without awareness. I cannot remember life without my sisters and for Wes, Abe was always there, another pair of eyes to see the world, another heart to feel his anger, joy and pain, someone to hold his secrets and to keep them sacred, to help him carry John and Paula’s enormous love.
John and Paula and the guys spent four blessed days together in Santa Barbara just before Christmas, and when Paula returned from that trip she told me of two scenes imprinted on her memory – two pictures that would always be a healing balm. In the first, she sits in her bedroom at the inn where they are staying – listening to the sound of her sons’ voices, not to the words, but to the counterpoint of bass and tenor – the intimacy of the tone, and rhythm and silences in the way they talk and listen to one another. A communion of much more than words.
In the second picture, she and John are walking on the beach with Wes and Abe walking together twenty yards in front of them — two young men walking, loving each other without need for and beyond words, two boys who, as Paula says, raised her and Johnny – two men she loves to distraction.
This is my story, dear Paula, of three beautiful men you love — who loved your lovely Wes beyond imagining and who were loved by him. And, of course, there is a fourth, who stands before you and tells a story we will tell again and again – a balm for our wounds and a great thanksgiving for Wes and our enormous love.
THANKS BE TO GOD!