When I get a phone call after 9:00 on a Saturday night it’s not good. Everyone who knows the pastor’s life, knows that Saturday nights are off limits. So, when my phone announced my good friend Anne Raybon was on the line, I knew it was bad news.
Paul and Anne Raybon are friends-made-family. Their son, Will, is a year older than our daughter, Trellace; their daughter, Kate, is the age of our son, Baker. Kate’s husband, Nathan, is one of our son’s best friends and Kate is a close friend of our daughter-in-law and both of our girls. They’ve all been in each other’s weddings. We know each other well. Anne wouldn’t call at that hour without reason.
“Hey Aileen,” she said, her voice dry around the edges.
“Hey Anne, what’s up?”
I was still standing on solid ground at that point.
My phone still connected to its charger.
The world was still turning as it always did.
It was still just a regular Saturday night.
I still thought the next day would be a routine Sunday.
And then she told me: “Tommy Bratton died today.”
The room tilted; my knees buckled; I reached for something steady. The charge cord dropped away from my phone. I closed my computer.
“What?” Despite my body’s reaction, my brain had not caught up.
“Tommy Bratton had a massive heart attack at home. They got him to the hospital. He died there.” Anne doesn’t spare words and at that moment I was particularly grateful for that gift. “We’ve called our kids. Kate and Nathan will call Baker and Addison.”
“I have to call Margaret.” My youngest daughter has a special relationship with Tommy’s wife, Laura, and had always loved the Bratton family. She would be devastated.
While I was talking with Margaret, my husband’s phone rang. Our son. He would call his older sister to tell her the news.
Soon we were all on the same video call, saying little, together trying to make sense of the unimaginable truth that somehow Tommy Bratton was now on the other side of eternity.
Tommy, younger than me by half a decade, started his vocational ministry nearly two decades earlier than I had. He taught me so much.
- About a major controversy stirring among churches in the mid 00s: “Let’s talk about love,” he said of same-sex partnerships. “How do we love well?” That’s it. What would it look like if we loved well?
- About the book of Revelation: “It’s about light. It’s about love. Give it a chance, Aileen.” (I did. He was right.)
- About church: “I always go to church when I’m on vacation! Why would I want to take a vacation from church?”
- And so much more.
Since I got the news, I’ve been saying, “I don’t want this to be true. I want to hit rewind. Don’t let it be true.”
I want to go back to 8:59 Saturday night and I want the phone to stay silent and I want the truth to be that Tommy Bratton is home with his family planning to go to church the next chance he gets. I don’t want this to be true.
I want Tommy to help move his youngest son, Ben, to NC State University in the fall. I want him to go visit his middle son, Jake, in his new place in DC. I want him to spend time with his oldest son, Ryan, and his daughter-in-law, Keelin. I don’t want this to be true.
And Laura. I don’t want Laura to face a day without her beloved. They deserve to grow old together. She shouldn’t have to live without him. I can barely think about Laura and I can’t stop either.
I don’t want it to be true. It’s not fair. It’s not right. I don’t want it to be true.
Listen, I don’t deify the dead. I can’t stand when a stinker of a human becomes a saint at death. Sorry (sort of), but really! I tell my children not to make me into some kind of perfect human when I die. Sure, I made really great Halloween costumes and threw epic birthday parties, but I’ve also made plenty of mistakes. Don’t make me out to be faultless when I’m dead. I’m not perfect.
But y’all Tommy Bratton? Tommy was really, really good. I mean, just good. So kind, so loving, so GOOD. Not perfect, because he wasn’t Jesus. But Tommy Bratton was truly good.
He always greeted me with great joy—just as he always greeted everyone. He defaulted to generous assumptions about others, giving the benefit of the doubt out of habit. He loved people. He loved me. And I loved him.
I don’t want this to be true. I want to hit rewind. I don’t want this to be true.