BEAR CREEK CEMETERY — It’s a standard Spring afternoon in North Texas. Birdsongs fill the air and a gentle breeze is the only thing standing between the pleasant sun and an uncomfortably warm afternoon. Just days after the Easter holiday, tucked away in a quiet grove off Highway 360, a contingent of Christians are still celebrating the Resurrection. After 49 years of marriage, Sam Atchley is saying goodbye to his wife, Dorothy.
I met Sam a few months ago, in the wake of a Community Powered Revitalization (CPR) blitz. His story — one of incredible, undying love — fascinated me from the first word until well beyond the last. This is a man who vowed marriage the first time he saw his wife, then tackled the music industry with her. Together, the pair of them would push through the tragic loss of a son. When Dorothy’s health began to fail, Sam dedicated every moment he could spare to waiting by her bedside. A hospital bed stood by his couch during our interview, the couple’s television neglected in the corner of their living room. All Sam wanted every night was to sit and talk to his wife. For a 25-year-old kid raised in an era of skepticism and divorce juxtaposed against Nicholas Sparks novels, that kind of love seemed hopelessly idealistic if not long-dead.
Sam made me believe in love again, and he inspired me to a deeper faith in God, as well. So it was only fitting that we follow up on our first piece about the Atchleys when their story moved into the next chapter. This was an intensely personal experience, and I determined early in the drafting of this post that my coverage of it needed to be the same. Pardon my lack of professionalism.
I wept after meeting Sam. I knew then that his story would be one of the most complex I had ever captured and attempted to retell. Our first interview was broken up by song and tears on more than one occasion, and I left the house shaking my head at the prospect of compressing a half-century of dedicated love and exceptional opportunity into three minutes. In the end, I had to neglect a large portion of Sam and Dorothy’s musical career — they’ve met Gene Simmons and Russell Crowe, and they have some amazing stories about the industry on the whole — in favor of the more incredible side of their story: Sam and Dorothy loved each other. Really loved each other, in a way that too few of us can comprehend.
You’d expect a man so in love to be a tattered mess at his wife’s funeral. Certainly, Sam grieved for his late wife. He confessed, privately, to a certain sense of emptiness and disorientation. He broke away from the post-service chatter to shed tears on Dorothy’s casket and to kiss it — to kiss her — one last time. But more than anything, Sam was joyful. Shockingly so.
The memorial service itself was brief and populated by coruscating memories of Dorothy’s contradictory fiery spirit and contagious laugh. Stories were shared about her kindness and warmth. A friend recounted the evening that their party was unable to secure a hotel and attempted to sleep in their car, but couldn’t find a moment of peace due to Sam and Dorothy’s incessant chatter and giggling. Another encouraged Sam that he and his wife had impacted countless lives through their faith and parenting: their daughter had brought her to faith in Christ and, in turn, her husband, her children, and a plethora of students she taught through the years.
The skeptic, of course, will scoff at the frivolity of belief in the unseen. “Do lives really change because of faith?” They’ll ask. “Does the idea of God really make a difference in a world so cruel as to separate such lovers as the Atchleys? How could a loving God allow such pain for a man who so faithfully served him for so long?”
A cursory glance at Dorothy’s memorial is more than an answer to those questions. While all of those in attendance were shaken by the loss of a friend, they were also confident of her final rest. Dorothy didn’t make it back to the house we revitalized last fall, but she certainly made it home. Those closest to her can trust that she did because it was promised her by a God who became man to conquer sin at the cross and defeat death by rising from the grave three days later.
For Sam and Dorothy, death is not the end. It’s just the start of a new chapter.
Every man, woman, and child gathered for Dorothy’s memorial was sure that she had found her way to paradise after her ordeal. Her story, from an earthly standpoint, is now concluded. Sam, however, has a bit more of his own to write before joining his wife for the sequel. Whether he will contribute a verse, a paragraph, or several more chapters, we can’t know. But we are both proud and grateful to announce that some of his writings include serving alongside us.
On April 8th and 9th, Sam joined with other volunteers from the City of Euless to restore a home just a few miles away from his own. He took his lunch break to handle the estate and chip away at the copious tasks that follow the loss of a loved one, but he was back shortly thereafter; helping to raise a fence in another family’s back yard.
Obviously, the CPR Spring Blitz was much bigger than one man’s story. But the beauty of 6 Stones is that, by collaborating with all kinds of people from all kinds of places, everything we do is a collision of stories. While Sam was holding fence posts in an effort to let go of his grief, the men working beside him were working tirelessly for their own reasons. Some of us paint houses to brighten the future, some of us strain through 5K marathons to provide for our children, and some of us quietly savor the opportunity to spread love and joy by handing out backpacks. Each of us is valuable.
All of us are writing a story, and every one of our stories is part of the greater collection that is humanity. Whether you believe in a greater Author behind that collaborative effort or not, there’s something beautiful about it. This is the way people were meant to be: United. Collaborative. Complete.
We are, all of us, part of a beautiful narrative.