I write this entry in my blog not because I necessarily think those who may follow my ponderings are interested, especially if they did not know him. I write this entry because it is what I do. I write in order to process, process frustration, process anger, process understanding, process joy, and in this case, it is how I process grief.
I do not recall the first time I met Brad Van Vranken, though I am relatively certain it more than likely happened at the United Methodist Church my dad was serving as pastor in Meade, Kansas. Brad and I over some time became fast friends, I remember the summer we went to church camp together and then sat in his upstairs bedroom looking at pictures and talking about the girls we had met. We walked all over town together in those junior high days; walking to the pool, to school functions, baseball games in the summer, or just hanging out at the park. I had the opportunity to do that again several years ago and I can attest to the notion that walking all over Meade is not as far as it used to be, or at least it sure seemed a long way around town when we were in junior high.
I remember when he got his first car, a red Ford Maverick with plaid seats, yeah, plaid seats whodathunk? Every car he owned after that was red. He would wheel up in front of the parsonage where we lived and I would pile in and we would cruise the town and smoke cigarettes. I said at his memorial service this last Saturday that was the only “story” I was going to reveal about our adventures in Meade America, Brad and I said often when we would meet, “What happened in Meade, stays in Meade!” I was in his house almost as much, or his mom might have thought maybe even more, than I was in my own house. So much so I just started calling Iverna, Mom. The name stuck, when I was appointed to the church in Coldwater and she was living there in 1998, I still called her mom.
I think one of the most profound times I remember with Brad was right after my brother sustained injuries in a football game, from which he would later die. I stayed with Brad and his family for several days. I was fortunate in those difficult times to be able to claim at least two families in addition to my own, Mom Van Vranken, and Mom Gerry, who gave me love and welcome when my own family was in Wichita with my brother. In some sense, though I did not recognize it at the time and had really not even thought about it until recently, those days of waiting, uncertain of whether my brother Chris was going to make it or not, under the shelter of these two families.
I had two others who were brother to me when my own was struggling to live. I am profoundly grateful for that experience, I did not ever have the opportunity to tell Brad that, I hope somehow this note gets to Todd and even though in the eighth grade processing of this sort just didn’t happen, I am today still moved by the notion of family beyond blood relation, even those with whom I should do better at staying in touch. So retrospectively “Thank you Brad, Iverna, and Gerry;” and here and now, “Thank you Todd.”
As we moved into high school Brad and I grew apart, for reasons I can speculate and analyze, but were never spoken of or shared together. My family moved from Meade before I finished high school and I graduated from Johnson High School in 1977. I lost touch and contact with Brad for many years, and the next contact I remember having was just by chance running into him at the Mall in Wichita and had a brief visit.
It was after I had entered into the ministry and finished my graduate school work I was appointed to the churches in Coldwater and Wilmore, Kansas. Just within a few days I discovered Mom Van Vranken was living in Coldwater and we pretty much picked up where we had left off twenty some years previous. Brad drove to Coldwater every weekend to visit Mom and we reconnected and reestablished our friendship. We would visit when he came out and we met several times for dinner if my work brought me to Wichita. While in Coldwater I had the difficult, yet extremely humbling honor of presiding at Mom Van Vranken’s memorial service, when I think of her I still miss her matter of fact speech, always telling you just what she was thinking, of course always very lovingly.
We moved to Wichita in 2010 as I was appointed to College Hill United Methodist Church and not too long after that was visiting with Brad again. I think I got him to church two, maybe three times, but mostly we simply enjoyed visiting over Mexican food at Play Azul with another friend and coworker of his.
Two weeks ago this Wednesday I received a call that Brad was in the emergency room at the hospital. I went to see him and while he was struggling to stay conscious before I left there was a hint of recognition in his eyes and a slight smirk on his face that told me he knew I was there when I told him I loved him. There was a similar response the next day and the same smirk when I told him I had to go to a meeting with a bunch of preachers and that it sounded like fun. The next Saturday he was very much more alert and when I bent down, kissed his forehead, and said, “I love you brother,” he reached up with his left hand and arm and hugged me. That would be the last time I saw him when I thought he knew who I was. My friend, my brother, died the next Wedesday; slipped away peacefully and quietly in bed in his home.
I had no doubt Brad was good at his work with the Department for Children and Families, but I really had no idea what a profound impact he had and how very good he was at what he did. The regional paper here Wichita did a write up on his work. Shortly before he was sick, unbeknownst to him or us, he had been voted to receive the Kansas State Social Worker of the Year Award. Brad quite literally because of his work saved hundreds of children here in Sedgwick County. His love and commitment to others was above and beyond what many of us would even consider doing. And, though I wish I had, I never knew. Part of that was my fault, I never asked about his work in any depth, only heard what he had to say about it.
A big part of that though was just who Brad was, he wasn’t interested in fanfare or recognition, though I think based on our conversations, at least a well placed “Atta Boy,” once in a while might have been appreciated. But, Brad just went about doing his job, went about doing and being good in a world that can be so messed up, screwed up, and he did it quietly, efficiently, and effectively.
When I find myself frustrated and angry at the world for how screwed up it can be, I am profoundly grateful for those like my brother Brad, who really did leave this world better than he found it. I pray all of us can find a way to make that happen. You know, I said at Brad’s memorial, fifty-seven years is not long enough, which is true, and at the same time what a difference those fifty-seven years made in the world that surrounded Brad.
As I reflect on my own life and journey, I know I am not my own, I am the product of so many loving, supportive, influential people and experiences in my life, and I can say the world is better, we are better, I am better because a little sliver of my life was lit by the presence of my brother from another mother, Brad.
Take some time over the next days and remember and reflect on those who have made a difference in your life, if they are no longer physically present, say a word of gratitude for who and what they were for you. If they are still present with you, tell them, call them write them, let them know…they need to know and you need to tell them.
Just the rambling processing of a grateful child of God who now has two older brothers to look up to and miss.
Peace and Light for All Our Journeys… Kent