At Alex McKeague’s funeral, I learned I want to live like Alex.
The crowd crammed into pews until elbow room evaporated, and then the crowd crammed some more. When every inch of every pew was full, ushers scurried to bring extra chairs to line the aisles front to back. I looked on with wonder at the overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly of people whose lives Alex had touched in his 80-plus years and thought, “I’ve got to learn to live like Alex.”
If I dare.
It is not an easy road to extra chairs at your funeral.
To live like Alex, I would need to take action and not say, “I’m sure someone else will do it.” To live like Alex, I would need to speak up for what is right, even when it is not the popular option. To be truly alive like Alex, I would need to be the voice in the wilderness crying out for changes to make the world more compassionate, equitable, peaceful.
During his memorial service, Rev. Ellie Barrington compared Alex to the powerful biblical prophet, Isaiah, tirelessly working to loose the bonds of injustice, to share bread with the hungry, to repair the breaches in our world and restore the streets we live in. Alex tapped into some mysterious energy force we would all love to find to do more good work for our world in a week than many people do in a year, or even a lifetime.
Alex founded the Carlington Chaplaincy in Ottawa to help feed and nurture residents of a challenged neighbourhood. He gave them more than food; he granted them potential. Alex collected skates, tennis racquets, or hockey equipment for children in need. He gave them more than sports equipment; he gave them inclusion. Alex rode his bike when he could, even during draining chemotherapy treatments. He gave us more than clean air; he gave us inspiration.
Alex couldn’t coexist peacefully with injustices. He couldn’t overlook a need, and he never tired of making the world better.
Sounds good. Sounds like what we all should be doing.
But most of us don’t. I don’t.
Most of us set up our walled defence of excuses. I do.
I don’t have time today.
There are programs in place for that.
That person is getting what he deserves.
Alex, the prophet, took action to change things when sticking to the status quo would have been easier—the tempting, deliciously attractive, effortless, risk-free status quo. Alex, the prophet, had a gift for bravely stepping in where others feared to tread.
But Alex’s true gift lay in handing out the difficult truths to resistant audiences and achieving the miracle of illumination. When Alex spoke in his quiet way, people somehow knew they could no longer accept the unacceptable. Alex’s soft handling of the hard truths encouraged us to join his vision for a better, more just world. His quiet words held loud power. This gentle Isaiah knew that if you want to make the world better, start with your corner, and never give up.
I remember Alex sitting week after week in the church lobby selling grocery gift cards as a fundraiser for the Carlington Chaplaincy. Those less committed to righting the world’s wrongs breezed past his determined dedication with barely a glance.
That was the thing about Alex—he was easy to underestimate.
He obtained a doctorate, but there was no “Call me Dr. McKeague” from him. He instructed his son, Paul, to not make him “look like a big shot” at the funeral. He wanted the rewards of his actions to fall on those who needed the help, not on himself. It was okay with him that we all looked toward his causes, helping them, supporting them, only glancing back after he was gone to realize that he had been the foundation, the catalyst for so much good work.
Alex was fulfilled, purposeful, always learning and stretching himself in new ways, happy. He showed that deep, long-lasting happiness is a paradox. We think to find it we need to focus on ourselves and our emotional comforts and material bonuses. We think happiness comes wrapped as a big screen TV. But the opposite is true. Alex knew that happiness doesn’t live in the mirror. He turned his back on self-reflection and looked out to find how to fulfill the needs of others.
I wondered for a time if my admiration for Alex was a bit exaggerated. Maybe my glowing memories cast too bright a light on his accomplishments? Then I learned that the Church in Society committee, of which Alex was a dedicated member, when considering a course of action would ask themselves one question:
What would Alex do?
Apparently, I’m not the only one who aspires to live like Alex. I’m not the only one who sees that life as lived by Alex is not far removed from some of the most inspirational spiritual leaders of our day.
Alex was like that. He lived to a standard that the rest of us find difficult to achieve. When Alex was here, following his lead came naturally. But now that he’s gone, can I risk carrying that torch? Can I go from being a writer to being a righter? Can I be a female Isaiah? Can I overcome the stumbling blocks of polite society? Be nice. Obey the rules. Don’t rock the boat. What will people think?
I’ll try. Because at Alex’s funeral I learned I want to live like Alex so that when I die they will need lots of extra chairs.
It seems that Alex altered the course of my life, as any good prophet would.
I’ll start with my corner of the world.