The last couple of weeks presented a wealth of topics for a blog post. But those all fell by the wayside on Thursday, May 12. I just need to write about an unexpected re-start to a friendship that ended too quickly.
As I sat down on a Thursday to do some writing for the first time in a while (a LONG while), a wealth of topics hung on my mind. I could write plenty about any number of things, and the events of the weekend certainly did not take away from the vault of topics. But none of these things were front and center on my mind. Because my mind was consumed with the loss of my friend, Wells Black.
I’ve known Wells since the days of Greenville Middle School and county league football with the Pelham Rd. Mustangs. We were casual friends during those early years, friendly but not incredibly close. Other than football, we only spent enough time together for Wells to pass along his unending passion for Van Halen–a lesson to which I still cling. Even at Eastside High, our time was largely confined to football activities, very friendly but not close friends. We occasionally got into trouble together although we need not delve into the details of that aspect.
Then Wells spent his last year at a different school and went on to Davidson, while I did my senior year before moving on to Furman. We reconnected via Facebook and talked periodically after that. This included my friend offering some sound legal advice for my ill-fated effort to become a sports radio personality (a different blog for a different day). We had limited contact here and there until 2013, when he suddenly showed up to hear me preach at my small church in Greenville.
To say that I was both stunned and thrilled to look up and see Wells Black sitting in the pew at Augusta Heights would be an understatement. Beyond the desire to ask, “What the hell are you doing here?,” I couldn’t believe that my old friend chose to hear me preach. His home was in the neighborhood and he just happened to see my name on the church sign one day.
He continued to attend off and on through 2014. We took the time for lunch to talk about church, religion, faith, and what we saw happening in the world. Or we just took a break at talked about sports! In August 2014, I accepted a position with Gardner-Webb University, and Wells treated me to one last lunch as pastor.
It was at this lunch that I noticed that he was only using one hand to eat. I found the nerve to ask what was going on and he said, “You don’t know?” He then revealed his battle with ALS (also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease). One of our members at the church just lost his father to the disease. I therefore knew exactly where this was going. And it was likely that no amount of Ice Bucket Challenges would change that equation.
I left that lunch meeting in stunned silence. We were barely in our 40s, and surely this wasn’t happening. Everything about Wells looked to be relatively fit and healthy and perfectly fine to live for many more years. Under the surface, his body was failing him. Researching and reading about ALS did not bring even the smallest ounce of comfort.
It is a hard point in our lives when we realize that we are losing more people than we are gaining. We attend more funerals than births and baby dedications. No matter when it hits you, this is a reality of our ongoing life together. However, this reality does not make it any easier when saying goodbye to someone who leaves this celestial ball far too soon.
This reality prompted Wells and I to stay in touch throughout my time at GWU. Until his funeral service last Monday, little did I know how long and how much Wells struggled in his heart and soul with the disease that attacked his physical body. Why would I? Wells did not view me as a pastor. I was a friend. An old and trusted friend in many ways, but not someone to whom he would confide all things. This changed to some degree in 2018, when I returned to pastor a small church in Greenville.
We would get together periodically on the weekends, sharing pizza from Vic’s when he could eat it and talking about all the things that make life worth living. We discussed faith, church, and family. We argued about sports, politics, and social issues. We talked about our children and where they were headed in life. Wells was always encouraging of my daughter attending UofSC, and I regularly derided him for his connection to “snooty” Davidson. (Because Furman has no such attitude, right?).
But I still was not Wells’ pastor. And that is what made the relationship great. He did not have to share any deep, dark secrets or fears unless he chose to do so. I could be open and honest with him about my own battles in ministry without any fear of judgment. Trust me when I tell you that the wisdom from outside the church circle is valuable for someone on the inside.
Occasionally, I was able to sub for his caretakers from time to time, getting an inside glimpse of his battle. It amazed me how splendidly these folks knew exactly what he needed—where to place the remote, how to arrange him in bed, etc. He patiently talked me through it to ensure that I met all his needs.
It was amazing. Theoretically, I was supposed to be helping him. But he had to talk me through it to make sure I did not mess up the system! It was also a bitter reminder of how fragile and vulnerable life can be. And, to be blunt, how absurdly unfair. Yet it also reminds us to appreciate even the most basic life essentials like breathing or working a television remote. Hopefully it reminds us at least for a moment to cherish people, to love others over and above all the absurd things that we vainly chase at the expense of what matters most.
If these thoughts crossed my mind on the occasional visit, it is hard to fathom the heart required of his parents, his family, his closest friends, and his caretakers who daily observed his struggle. What a blessing and a heartache it was to observe his stubborn courage (he was determined if nothing else!), but also to see his suffering. If there is any grace to be found here, it is that his struggle was not in vain and that it is now finished.
I cherished these visits with Wells. I have no idea if it helped him at all, but it was great for me. It was so refreshing to have a friend who just allowed me to be completely honest, to be myself in every aspect. No judgment, no condemnation, no questioning of my faith or my ability as a pastor. Just a guy who enjoyed talking and sharing a pizza whenever it was possible.
Then COVID hit. And it all came to an end. This is one more reminder that as hard as the pandemic was for everyone, it was infinitely more difficult for people with health issues and vulnerabilities.
Other than an occasional video, text, or Facebook message, I never talked to Wells again. We tried to set up a meet, but never made it work due to his condition and my increasingly inflexible schedule. Perhaps this was a loss for him, but it was unquestionably a loss for me.
I barely knew how to start this piece, much less end it. I have missed Wells since our last gathering in February of 2020.
None of us, even the best of us, are guaranteed one minute on this mortal coil beyond what we currently have. We are all vulnerable and subject to anything at any moment. The choice we have is to cover up in the corner, or face the fear with all the grace and courage that Christ can give. It is a lesson to all that, against all odds and even his own frustrations, Wells somehow chose the latter.
Our greatest comfort, particularly for those closest to him who watched him struggle, is the knowledge of peace. I believe that Wells is at peace, truly resting for the first time in years. He’s in a place where he breathes and moves and talks freely without the chains of a terrible disease. I pray that all of his family and friends find the hopeful peace of realizing that our loss is Well’s gain.
Yet, I still miss my friend. And I will miss him for many years to come.
Truly, all of our prayers for comfort go to his family and caregivers who stayed by his side every step of the way. Along with Wells, they are the true heroes of this story. Their faithfulness to stand by his side through the toughest of days was no easy task. May we all be so faithful in caring for those in need!
Please see the obituary for ways to contribute to ALS Research: Archibald “Wells” Black, Jr.
Donations may be made in his memory, earmarked for research, to:
South Carolina ALS Association, 130 Gardners Circle, PMB 622, Johns Island, South Carolina 29455.