At Large: A standing O

There is a potent melancholy about these late summer days, a sense of irrecoverable loss. Sympathetically, the wind was piping Sunday morning, the bright blue sky harsh, and in the pews of the lovely, austere Old Whaling Church, through the mildly distorting old glass in the tall windows, the leaves in the nearby trees danced, sparkled, and waved soundlessly. The bright flat light and the wind moving tolled the warm season’s end.

As they waited, the assembled could not have anticipated an antidote to the blues. After all, the occasion was the funeral service for Joseph Edward Jerome, 24, who died on the first day of September. The older son of Ed and Maryanne Jerome, Joseph had been very ill for a very long time, as his younger brother Nicholas told us, in his lovely, affecting eulogy . There had been so many hospital stays, so many medical procedures, immeasurable discomfort, and yet Joseph through it all was stalwart, generous, and loving. He had apologized to the EMTs who came to take him to the hospital time after time. And, now Sunday.

The Jeromes are well known. Ed was the Edgartown School principal and filled in temporarily as Island schools’ superintendent, in 2005 and 2007. He is president of the annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Now, in retirement, he is Captain Ed Jerome, a charter fisherman. These are occupations, entries on a resume, markers of a busy and successful working and community life that has been admirable in countless respects. Beyond all that, Ed and Maryanne have been the faithful, enduring parents of Joseph. That has been a central calling of their lives.

Beyond the cheerful flowers, beyond the music and the prayers, the unmixed goodness of that parental devotion blessed the crowd at Sunday’s funeral service with a remarkable and unexpected lift. The Rev. John Shule presided and, in his quiet, knowing way, transformed what promised to be an unbearably distressing hour into a heartening, hopeful, and reassuring moment of good will and devotion, as practiced among us.

John Schule presided over the marriage of Ed and Maryanne 25 years ago. He’s presided over lots of marriages and funerals, and he remembers many of them in detail. In September 2006, he married my oldest daughter in a Chilmark field. In a telephone conversation this week, he remembered that day as a “wonderful occasion.” He did not remind me – he did not need to – that the ceremony was late to start, and that he was pressed for time because he had another appointment on his calendar. The moment he had pronounced my daughter and her husband married, John legged it across the big, rolling field to make his next stop. John has been sick, and at 82, he thinks it’s miraculous that he keeps on ticking, but he’s not legging it these days the way he did seven years ago.

In July, John officiated at the Jeromes’ 25th wedding anniversary celebration. He follows the people whose marriages he begins and whose ends he oversees, so he knew Joseph and his torturous health problems. That evening, Reverend Shule and Joseph compared notes over the whithering challenges of their ill health. They graded the medicines they had in common. “We shared so much,” John said this week, “that it was as if Joseph was writing his own service. He was so very courageous.”

Preparations for Sunday, John said, derived from that evening in July and his conversation with Joseph. “What I did really was just reflect on that evening.”

John told the crowd Sunday that when he imagines the Vineyard from far above, it is striking how small and apart it is. But, living his life here, he is astonished and convinced that the spirit of the community is not small, it is big hearted, loving and a sturdy support to neighbors, friends, and loved ones. On occasions, presiding over services like Joseph’s, he has asked the participants to raise the spirits of the afflicted and deserving with a standing ovation. Not the usual thing but, he says, it’s a spontaneous addition and can work wonders.

Sunday, he asked the friends and family who filled the Old Whaling Church’s pews for a standing O for Ed and Maryanne. It went on and on.

“I don’t think Joseph had ever been to one of my services,” John said, “but when we were talking in July, it came up.”

“You know, John,” Joseph said to the man who would preside over Sunday’s gathering, “if you live long enough, I know my parents love you and you’ll probably do my service. Give them a standing O. They’re more than parents. They’re earth angels.”