A tribute to the life of my friend, Andre Coe
(Eulogy delivered Dec. 10, 2011, at King Solomon Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas.)
I met Andre in 2008, when he came to work at The Associated Press. I think we initially became friends because he laughed at the tropical shirts I wore to work every day. I knew then he was all right. We became closer while discussing topics some people avoid talking about in order to keep the peace – topics like race, religion, politics, football and barbecue.
We agreed on a lot of things, disagreed on some others. Mostly, we just enjoyed our time together, and we laughed a lot.
And as he went through his final struggle, we prayed a lot, as well.
You can learn a lot about someone while sitting across from him eight hours a night in an AP office. Sometimes there are surprises, like when you find out the white guy listens to Fatback and the African-American can name numerous country and western songs — what’s up with that? I soon began to notice other things about Andre, as well:
–He didn’t seem to worry much about day-to-day issues. He lived life. He took what each day gave him, tried to make the most of it, and moved on. I found that I wanted to be more that way.
–He had an imposing presence, a quiet strength, and a soft heart. I heard a lot about his family and his fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, who were always in his thoughts. In fact, much later, when Andre while in the hospital mistakenly identified me for a brief moment as a fraternity brother, I considered it a high honor.
–I noticed that Andre insisted on being treated fairly. In fact, in his personal life as well as his professional life as a journalist, he wanted all people to be treated equally and respectfully. He saw the potential of journalism for making wrongs right, healing societal ills. He was deeply concerned about injustice and oppression, and when confronted with any hint of it, he spoke out. Sometimes this could get him into a little hot water.
In fact, Andre didn’t have much of a “filter” about any subject. He said what was on his mind when he felt like saying it, and this could either make you fidget uncomfortably or laugh uncontrollably. He could joke about a doctor saying “that’s a good one” when removing a cyst from his back. He could laugh at himself walking into a bathroom and becoming angry with the bald guy staring back at him before realizing he was looking in the mirror.
He was a keen observer of human behavior, and his comments about others could be biting, but they were never mean-spirited. His authenticity won him many friends, even though he wasn’t trying to win friends. He was just being who he was.
Andre had tremendous faith and joy. He loved life, and he trusted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He believed that when Jesus said I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly, he meant it. Embedded forever in my memory is the sight of him bowing his head over dinner between phone calls at the AP, praying silently to himself. At the time we were becoming close friends, I had reduced my hours at work and started attending seminary. I was reading a lot about Christianity. In Andre, I saw someone who lived it every day.
I also came to find that Andre was the most nonjudgmental person I have ever known. He accepted people as they were. He had firm beliefs and strong convictions, but you did not have to accept them to receive his friendship. If you look at the dozens of memorials that have been written on his Facebook page since his passing last week, you will find people that you would never expect to find in the same room together – unless Andre was there.
These last few days, I have been looking back at the text messages we exchanged over the last two years. They show me that we spent a lot of time just joking around and having fun, or talking sports. Then, on Feb. 4, 2010, I was at work when I received the text containing these words:
“Well. sir, I will be posting a message about this later but I’d like you to know before I tell everyone else. Bro, I have cancer. The big C. Those vision problems I told you about on my trip were the results of spots that developed on my brain. Doctors plan to start radiation and chemo tomorrow. (We’ll be bald together :-o) But seriously, I’m going to make it through this. God is always on the job. And he is even now. I’ll talk with you later.”
That was the beginning of the difficult journey that led to today, and surrender was never an option. Andre lived life even more abundantly. He laughed more. He made more friends. He resolved to learn more, and he deliberated very seriously, up until the very end, about going to law school.
He picked up his trombone again and played in a band. He went to concerts. He looked up old friends and renewed old acquaintances. He cherished his youth, and many fond memories, such as the trials and tribulations of working for his Mom and Dad, and he remembered the quiet peace he felt riding home with his Father late at night after a long day at the restaurant, his mother meeting them at home. He wrote a book, and if you’re hearing about this for the first time, you might want to look it up after leaving here today and find out what he said about you.
As much as he felt up to doing it, Andre chronicled each step along the way on his Facebook page. In the midst of his battle, he lost his father, which took away his will to write for a while. Andre always shared the good as well as the bad, the grim details of fighting cancer, and hundreds of people followed his progress and couldn’t wait for his updates. You will see on his Facebook page that he had many friends who never met him in person but were overwhelmed with a deep sense of loss over his passing.
Andre was a warrior armed with an engaging smile, courage, faith and joy, and so it was easy for those of us who cared about him to believe he would vanquish the foe, and this day would never come. I would give anything if it had not. But I cannot say today that Andre lost his battle with cancer. He didn’t lose. We are the ones who lost. His mother lost a loving son. His sisters and his brother lost a sibling who cared deeply for them. And his friends and family lost the familiar sound of his laughter, and his companionship. Andre made it through this, just like he said he would, and he did it with style and grace.
It is deeply troubling to say goodbye to someone so young and full of promise. I cannot help but wonder what he would have done, what his life would have been like if he had been granted the gift of many years. But take comfort in remembering that, in his abbreviated days on this earth, he gave us so much. I believe his greatest gift was hope, displayed in the courage in which he fought cancer and his resolve to love more deeply because Christ first loved him. He showed that, in Christ, there is hope, even when facing the worst possible situation. He lived it, even when the going got tough. Only God knows why he had to leave us so soon, but there is thanksgiving today that he is free from all suffering and has reunited with loved ones, including a joyful reunion with his dad.
What Andre did not receive in quantity of life, he made up for in quality, and I know if he were standing here today, he would urge all of us to live more fully, love more freely, take more chances, meet new friends, and have more faith in God and one another.
The world is poorer today without the presence of Andre Coe, and heaven is richer. In my religious tradition, we would say that Andre has joined the Church Triumphant. Those of us who remain here still deal with the struggles of this broken world, but he is home, having triumphed over sin and death.
One day, in the Lord’s good time, I pray that a merciful God will judge me worthy to join him, to laugh together and again know the warmth of his smile.
Such lofty thoughts cause me to remember Red in the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” finally free from prison and aboard a southbound bus, hopeful of reuniting with his friend Andy in a warm place by a blue ocean said to have no memory.
“I find I’m so excited,” Red says, “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend again and shake his hand.”