I love Ryan Caron.
I. LOVE. RYAN CARON. He was (one of) my Pride and Joy. I was his chosen godmother. He had a godmother assigned by his parents, Howard and Rachael. But I STILL remember the email exchange where he asked me if I would be his godmother. He was 11, and at that time had been a parishioner in our congregation since he was a toddler. I had been his pastor. He wanted more. I don’t at all pretend to be the only person Ryan made feel special by his choosing. I know there were MANY, like the family who cared so much for him and his parents and sister when he made the trips to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston more times than he wanted (see that account by music man Walt Falconer).
But I was special to him. And he was very special to me. I love/d him. He delighted in me.
When I met Ryan, there was no guarantee after that first meeting that I would see him again. His mother, now my daughter in ministry, Rachael Caron–author of Secret Sins of the Heart and now one of the leaders of Fresh Water Ministry–almost did not come back to church after that first encounter. I was preaching. In shorts. I looked nothing like the pastor of Rachael’s youth that she expected to see.
And I used the word “nigger” in the sermon (I could say the N word, but in 1990 we weren’t using that tamed expression). And Rachael is married to an Anglo (to use the Texas language), which means Ryan is/was bi-racial/multi-racial. I won’t take the time here to explain the context of the way that word came up in a sermon, but note my relief that they did come back and they became engaged members of Banah Full Community Church.
Our love relationship begun in those early days. Curly-headed Ryan on unsteady toddler’s legs would run toward me. And just before he reached me, he would leap and I would catch him and swing him around and kiss his face all over. I delighted in him. He loved me. We were a match in every way.
He adopted my sons as his brothers, especially Deon. His affinity to Deon was his love for music. He was enamored by Deon’s flow. Ryan was an excellent singer, a musician, a lyricist, a poet. He loved Darius because Darius picked him up and rode him piggy back and made his squeal with laughter. He became my son without even trying. They loved him. He delighted in them.
There are so many memories. Him reading poetry to me and asking me what I thought of it. Ryan talking theology, really trying to comprehend the Mystery whom he loved so much. Ryan telling me to listen to certain music and explaining it. Ryan crying. Ryan laughing.
It started innocently enough. Ryan had what looked like a bruise on his thigh. But it wouldn’t heal. And I still can recall the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me when Rachael called, crying. “It’s serious.” Over the next few weeks we would learn just how serious. Ryan was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood onset cancer–with a 5% survival rate. The church would fast. And pray. And fast and pray some more. And prophesy. And cry. And hope. And despair. We ALL loved Ryan Caron. And he loved all of us.
Ryan would email me in the middle of the night and ask me, “mama are you up? I have questions.” Most of the time I would be up. And the questions would be about love. And how God works. And about what he wanted to do when he grew up. And, later, about death. And whether he could/should believe he would be healed. He would tell me, “I just don’t want my mom to be sad.” Or, “I really want Shannon (his sister) to be okay.” Or, “My dad isn’t doing so well. How do I help him?” I’d like to say I had wisdom in those moments. Mostly, I had a listening ear.
I know it will sound crass to say it, but Ryan was a “star” cancer patient. He stood out because of his optimism and faith and laughter and the way he cheered everyone around him. He got to be an ambassador and to meet Lance Armstrong and cast members of The Closer and play music in dives around Austin. Although he did, he seemed never to tire. He LOVED people and they loved him.
Ryan never stopped living. He was in a choir and went out with his friends up until the end. He wanted to graduate high school and ended up having a one-student graduation because he was sick at the time of the actual graduation and people showed up in DROVES to cheer him across the stage. By force of will and some inner strength that amazed us all, Ryan skied and raced and sang barber shop quartet and wrote gospel and hip hop songs and shot commercials and gave speeches to foundations and their supporters. We delighted in him.
In 2004, when I returned to Austin from Memphis after a year teaching, we were in a worship service, the last one where I would be called “pastor” of that church. I told the church the story of being called to gather the “Tribe,” a collective of artists. Afterwards, Ryan walked up to me, propped himself up straight on his crutch and saluted me. “Pastor Valerie,” he said. “I am a warrior in The Tribe. I am an arrow in the quiver of God and I shoot straight from the heart of God, nothing but love. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE MY LEADER. I will follow you ANYWHERE.” I cried. Sobbed. He hugged me, and whispered “I love you” into my locks.
Ryan told me once that God had assured him that it would be over in seven (7) years. And, he made me promise that if he needed me I would come to him. In August 2008, Rachael called me. Ryan wanted me to come. He was in the hospital in Houston. He was having terrors. The chemo was making him sicker than usual. He was scared. “Mama, you promised if I needed you that you would come.” I said, “I will be there tomorrow.” I was in Memphis. I spoke with my dean, gassed up my car and planned to drive the 10 hours to Houston. But when I went by the school, my now good friend Kirk Whalum, Memphis born grammy-winning saxophonist, was in the room. He heard snatches of the story. He heard I was driving. He asked me to give him an hour before I left. And when he called me 30 minutes later, he had provided me a frequent-flyer ticket. In that moment, Kirk and I were connected because he fell in love with Ryan just by the story. We both loved him. I owe Ryan my friendship with Kirk and Ruby.
When I got to Houston, Ryan wanted to talk about death. And only death and the dying process. Years of being a chaplain in hospice kicked in for me. I actively listened. We cried together. We prayed. We screamed at God together. We wondered out loud. And then he reminded me: “Pastor Valerie, remember I told you 7 years?” I did. He said, “I just didn’t think it was going to end in death.” And when I opened my mouth to protest, he put his hand to my mouth and shook his head, “no.” I just collapsed onto him and the bed and we wrapped each other in our arms and we both wept until we were relieved with the awful truth that descended on us both. My beloved Ryan had assurance that death was coming. And all he wanted was for me to know that he knew. He loved me like that. And I delighted in him.
When we were spent with our grief in the moment, we let go. He said, “You know you have to preach the sermon right? You know, right? Please promise me.” I said, “Ryan you don’t need my promise. Of course, I will do the funeral.” “PROMISE ME,” he insisted. So I gave him a promise I knew I didn’t need to make. I knew when I got up from his bed, laying in the blank space where his amputated leg should have been, that I would eulogize him.
Ryan knew death was coming. But he didn’t wait for it. He lived EVERY MOMENT he could when tumors weren’t being cherry picked from his body. He fought to be with his classmates and friends. He wrote furiously. He played music. He talked to me often. I loved that he wanted to talk to me. He lived through the death of his grandmother (Rachael’s mom), and then the family dog. But he kept going. He got a tattoo that he designed inked onto his skin for his wedding. He married his school-days sweetheart Melody on January 16, a day after my birthday. I performed the ceremony. It was stunningly simple and beautiful. When I asked each of them the question that ends “as long as you both shall live,” you could hear the sobs in the room. But both Melody and Ryan were brave in the face of death. They had a fierce love.
Ryan was tired and nurses and doctors were on hand. By then he had been having seizures as the unrelenting cancer was eating into his brain. Though we begged, Ryan refused to sit during the ceremony. And then he refused to leave early. He wanted to speak personally to everyone who came. And there was so many there. They loved him. And he delighted in them.
Then, around February 2 or so, Ryan called me. He was conscious, but as he said, he knew his time was near. I asked if he wanted me to come. He said, no. “You’ll just going to have to turn right back around for the funeral,” he said. “And you HAVE to be here for that.” Over the next few days, he called friends and family to his side and blessed them with a word or by laying hands on them and praying for them. The day he died, I am told, there was a line down the block of young people waiting to have their last moment with him. He became impatient with death, after he knew the hours were short. He wanted death to come on because, he said, “Mama, I’ve seen my mansion and it’s beautiful.” He was ready. So was I. Most of us were not.
Ryan died on February 5. I spoke with him within a hour of his last breath. He said, “thank you Pastor Valerie. I love you Mama. And don’t forget, you HAVE to preach the funeral.” “I love you too Ryan,” I said. “Very, very much. Thank you for choosing me. You are my endless love.”
February 14, 2008 was a dreary day in Cedar Park, TX. My friend Catharine Cummings had driven me down so that I could be rested and have the sermon ready. We arrived the night before and laughed with Rachael as the final details were being put in place. When we got to the church, more than 700 people had gathered to bid Ryan their final respects. The music ranged from choral to barber shop to gospel to hip hop. It was so Ryan. He “other mother,” Dr. Sherri Benn who had been with him when he got it, read the story of his tattoo and how Ryan talked to the tattoo artist about God the whole time.
I rose to preach. Song of Songs (Solomon) 8:6b-7a:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
It was Valentine’s Day, a fitting day to pay homage to a man who knew how to love and who proved to me that love is STRONGER than death.
I am just glad I had the privilege to know his BRIGHT STAR and to serve him in any way as his pastor, god/mommy, beloved, and friend. Rachael gave the world an amazing GIFT when she conspired with the Universe, G*d of Heaven, Divine Love to bring him into this world through her body. I love/d Ryan Caron. He loved me. And that is my delight on this day. Happy Valentine’s Day, Ryan.