The Best Gift: A Life Well-Lived

I wouldn’t have thought attending a memorial service in the darkness of mid-December would make me feel better about life, and kindle my Christmas spirit, but strangely—and wonderfully—it did.

The memorial honored the life of Jack Thomas, the father of two of my closest childhood friends, Valerie and Jacquelyn. Jack (always “Mr. Thomas” to me) was also a close friend of my parents, so he is firmly fixed in the memories of my youth. 

On the day of the memorial I began feeling nostalgic as I drove to the suburbs, to a town not far from where I grew up. Entering the traditional church and seeing familiar faces I don’t see nearly often enough, gave me the sense of stepping back in time. Standing next to my brother, singing a favorite old song (from a hymnal—when was the last time I had held a hymnal?) added to the effect. The pastor who led the service is someone I’ve known all my life—and who actually now lives in the house in the woods where I grew up.

Everything about this event felt like home.

The tributes began and I heard things about Jack Thomas which I hadn’t known.

Obviously, I knew what his influence on my life had been, how nice he’d always been to me. I had spent countless hours at the Thomas’s house. During the summer, it sometimes seemed as though I was at their house more than my own. Jack was always welcoming to me, he never groaned (not audibly, anyway) when he saw that I was there again . . . or still there!

Jack was way ahead of Olive Garden on the “When you’re here, you’re family” front. When I was at his house, he treated me like one of his own daughters. He included me in family outings; I especially enjoyed the gospel quartet festivals he took us to—I wouldn’t have experienced those otherwise. And he always paid my way without making mention of it.    

Jack had a good sense of humor, which came out when it was least expected. His jokes and puns were usually delivered with a straight face, which is an ability that amazes (and eludes!) me. He shared his humor in little notes he’d leave for his family, too. I remember the time he left a note for Valerie, Jacquelyn and me before leaving for work, which read, “Girls, please go into the backyard today and pick lions that are dandy.” It made us laugh and actually made the chore of weeding seem like fun.

I had so many fond memories of Jack, but my interactions with him ended when I left for college; I only saw him a few times after that. So hearing the ways in which he’d impacted other people’s lives was so unexpected . . . like he’d lived an additional lifetime since he’d been a part of mine.   

We heard heartfelt testimonies from Jack’s daughters, his step-son, and his grandchildren. We heard of all the things he’d taught them, experiences he’d provided for them, all the ways in which he’d gone out of his way to show them that he loved and valued them. We heard of the financial support he gave to charities and individuals. We heard of the regular phone calls he made to check up on friends who were ill or no longer living nearby. We heard of his love for America, evidenced by his voluntary military service. We heard of his deep faith in God, and the many ways he demonstrated that faith.

It became clear to me that the generosity and kindness he had shown to me so many years earlier was not unusual for him: it was simply the way he lived his life.

If he was looking down on the afternoon’s proceedings—and I hope he was—I believe he had to be shaking his head in disbelief at the praise he was receiving, because Jack Thomas was a very humble man, and I doubt he’d had any idea of the impact his life made on the lives of so many others. 

As I made the drive home, I found myself feeling grateful for the timing of this memorial. As Christmas approaches and I’m deciding what gifts to give the people I love, this gathering served as a reminder that the best gifts are not reserved for holidays, and they seldom come wrapped with ribbons and bows. Instead, they are given out routinely, as needed, on an everyday, case-by-case basis. They are the most generous kind of gifts . . . those of kindness, time, shared wisdom, care and concern.

I believe it’s built into the heart of every human to want to leave something of value behind when they leave the earth.

And, whether he knew it or not, Jack Thomas certainly did.

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