We gathered in Billings High School auditorium
this breezy, sunny early-March Sunday afternoon
to say goodbye.
This is where so many of us
attended school assemblies,
took standardized tests,
acted in plays,
played band concerts,
walked across the stage
to receive diplomas,
voted on election day
and gathered on these occasions,
many times,
to say goodbye
when the one whose life we celebrated
was so respected
that no church in town could hold the mourners.
This time we came together
to say goodbye to a dear man
who died in a vehicle accident
last Thursday. He was 42. His name is Ty.

This is a rural community.
The town itself has fluctuated
from 500 to 800 to less than 500
over the years.
There were more people wearing jeans
than suits at this service.
Our faces tell the stories
of farming,
of outdoor life,
of struggle,
of perseverance.
As I sat there
in those familiar wooden seats,
embraced by the painted concrete block walls,
the backdrop of heavy burgundy
cloth curtains closed across the stage,
I felt an uncanny comfort.
Despite all our differences,
in moments like these
we sigh into our humanity.

My best friend from fifth grade
into high school, when I moved away
the first time,
was Ty’s sister.
We reunited again when we both lived
in the same city on the East Coast
and when we both returned home.
We have lived in the same house,
one after the other.
We support each others’ work.
She was a support in other ways
once when I was in crisis.
Her brother Ty lived a couple of miles
down the road
and often stopped to visit
when driving his big red pickup
home, his children beside him,
as the dogs and I walked the country road.
I knew well his mother and his dad,
who worked on this farm;
and his other two sisters.
One of them raised her family
in this house after and before
the times I have lived here.
In fact, she now works for the mortuary,
and lovingly prepared our mother’s body
for her funeral.
I spent days with his father
in his later years
as we talked about writing
and telling our life stories.
Two of Ty’s brothers-in-law
also worked on this farm.
I spent a year following one of them
each day to write a book about farming.

This is not extraordinary
in a small town.
As I looked around that auditorium
and brought memory back to faces
come home,
faces aged since we last looked upon one another,
I realized we all have many stories
about connections made with each other.
In a small place,
with a relatively small group of people,
life is a long strand of connecting moments.
Some are funny, some are warming,
some still sting.
I have not always championed
small-town life;
I see its advantages
and I see its disadvantages.
I have celebrated this life
and I’ve tried to change it.
But the one thing
I have always believed about Billings
and its people
is that in moments of loss and crisis,
we come together—
humbled, forgetful, gracious.
As I sat in the filled high school auditorium
once again,
gathered with so many to honor
and bid goodbye
to a sweet man,
I felt the peace,
the integrity,
the humbleness;
the failure
and the triumph
of our efforts to be
community.