“Sing it again, Renae!”
I laughed, startled at the familiar, impish voice calling to me. I had been rehearsing for my solo on Sunday morning, and I didn’t know anyone was listening.
“Hey! I said sing it again!”
“Yes, sir!” I called out and did as I was told. Berley had been living with my family for about four years, and his presence had breathed new life into our home. Though it was always a place filled with love, Berley brought a fervor and a zest for life that was somehow lacking before his presence there.
Berley Van Renfro was born with a heart and lung disease. Doctors gave him only a few weeks to live. Never one to take orders from anyone, he came to live with my family when he was twelve. Now, at sixteen, the freckle-faced blonde stood a tall 4’6” and weighed every bit of 68 pounds. We all knew his time with us was limited, but Berley wouldn’t let us think about it. He kept us all in stitches most of the time, and when he wasn’t making us laugh he was giving orders, like the one he gave now.
Berley came into our lives through my mother, a school secretary. Unable to walk to all of his classes, Berley became the office aide. Since he was too poor to afford new school clothes, my mother offered to help out. “Berley, tell your father that my little boy is all grown up now, and I miss buying things for little boys. Ask him if it would be all right for me to take you shopping.”
Mr. Renfro gave his permission, and off they went to the mall. The following week, Berley strutted into school decked out in new jeans, sunglasses, and a cool denim jacket. “I’m bad, I’m bad,” he sang as he attempted to moonwalk to class. The friendship between Mom and Berley continued to grow, and soon Berley invited himself to spend the weekend. The weekends became more and more frequent, until finally Mr. Renfro, a single parent, asked my parents to take Berley.
We never regretted saying yes. Berley taught us more in those few years than many people learn in a quarter of a century. He traveled most places in a wheelchair, for he was too weak to walk. But in that chair he would race and beat anyone who dared feel sorry for him. He spent much of his time attached to an oxygen tank, the tubes of which he would strategically place in order to trip anyone who happened to be on his hit list.
He loved to hide and chase people with his red, remote-controlled Chevy Blazer. That little red truck would pop up at the craziest moments, often with a note attached. “HUNGRY. BRING FOOD.” — Or –“BETCHA CAN’T FIND ME!” –Or–“GIVE ME MONEY AND I WILL LEAVE YOU ALONE!”
And he never missed a school dance. He could boogie and jive in a wheelchair better than most people with both feet on the floor. “I am a chick magnet!” he would boast as the girls flocked around him.
During his frequent hospital stays, Berley’s room was the place to be. White walls were covered with posters of teen pop stars and “Get Well” banners from schoolmates. Pictures of pretty girls were clipped to the bleak hospital curtains, signed with messages of friendship and love. The aroma of brownies and other party snacks competed with the clinical smell of ammonia, and we all tried to pretend this was just another Friday night get-together.
Nurses and doctors constantly crowded there not for treatment, but to see who was winning the current Nintendo battle, or to hear about Berley’s latest antic. It seemed the entire floor watched as Berley shaved off half my brother’s beard after winning some crazy bet. And we’re still talking about the New Year’s Eve Party of 1990!
Always, when he returned to school, he got the celebrity treatment. His easy smile and wild belly laugh gave him an irresistible magnetism. No one was surprised when his classmates voted to present him with the Spirit Award, one of the school’s highest honors.
His classmates weren’t the only ones to recognize his beautiful spirit. The entire basketball team of Houston Baptist University autographed a jersey for him, which he wore proudly. And Berley was honored to sit at the table with Heisman Award winner Andre Ware during a University of Houston Sports Banquet. Actually, Andre would probably say that he was honored to sit with Berley.
He saved my mother’s life once. She was alone in the kitchen, and she screamed when a large man flung through the door and told her to sit down and shut up. The man, an escaped criminal from the local prison, hadn’t counted on Berley. When Berley peeked around the corner and saw the back of this huge thug, he figured out what was happening, took off his oxygen mask, and climbed out the window. He went to a neighbor’s house and called 9-1-1, and the police arrived in minutes. My mother was unharmed, and Berley made the 5 o’clock news. He was even featured on Good Morning Houston. Little did he know that he was already our hero before any of that happened.
Funny, Berley was the one who was dying. And yet, he seemed to teach everyone he came in contact with that one great lesson: how to live. For Berley, each moment was too precious to be wasted on worry or heartache. Life was something to be savored. And for Berley, death was simply a more beautiful extension of life. For through death, he would experience the absence of pain and the beauty of his Heavenly Father for all of eternity.
Obediently, I opened my mouth to sing what later became known as Berley’s theme song. “I wanna go where the milk and honey flow, and Jesus is the Light, and He’s building me a home . . .” The song was a gentle reminder that in spite of Berley’s strong spirit, his body was weak, and he wanted to go home.
Several months later, I stood in front of a somber crowd to sing those very words. Berley’s peaceful form lay, as though sleeping, in a pine box. Although my heart was breaking, my spirit seemed to soar with Berley to a beautiful place where milk and honey flow, where no electricity is needed for the brightness of our Heavenly Father, and where there are no wheel chairs or oxygen tubes or hurting bodies. As I opened my mouth, I wasn’t sure the words would come over the knot in my stomach or the lump in my throat. But then, clear as day, I heard that impish little laugh and that commanding voice chide, “Sing it again, Renae!”
And I did.