I pulled into the Quinn Funeral Home parking lot, the wipers intermittently swiping drops from the windshield. I stopped as a couple, arm in arm, crossed the slick pavement hurriedly for the entrance. I circled the lot. It was packed, even though some people were leaving. The line of cars grew behind me. It was a patient group, respectful.
Inside I joined another line that started just inside the door. It weaved into one chapel, then into a second, where people sat quietly in pews before standing up and filling the pew in front of them as those in the first pew joined the line into the chapel where the body of Andrew Martin lay and his family stood.
I joined the line. Douglas James, tennis pro at Tennis Rhode Island, joined me. We cross paths on Saturday mornings during the season for indoor play of the league started soon after completion of Toll Gate High by Bob Coker and Clyde Bennett almost 45 years ago. Bob and Clyde still play. Relatively, Doug is a newcomer with 26 years at Tennis RI.
And in a way tennis is what brought us together to pay our respects to Andrew. More accurately, it was the Martin family that brought us together.
Doug and I barely made it inside the first chapel where more than 150 people lined the walls, speaking in whispers and periodically stabbing at their cell phones, that a woman leaving the wake recognized me. She came over to give me a hug and the news that I could expect a wait of more than two hours.
“Yes, the line goes into the second room,” she informed. I looked around. This was news to me and to many of us. No one left. Some looked down at their feet, some got out their phones, evidently to text family members they might not get home until 8:30, even later.
This was more than resolve.
I wondered how the Martins had brought so many of us together. I scanned the crowd. Some were in their 20s – Andrew’s age – and it made sense they would be there. Perhaps they were classmates from Pilgrim or CCRI or maybe neighbors from Warwick Neck. And yet there were so many older people and then, too, young families with children dressed in their Sunday best. How were we all connected by a boy who suffered from the rare genetic disease, ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T)?
Andrew’s optimism and love of life has been an inspiration for so many.
I felt it when the disease robbed Andrew of mobility and Jack and Carole Henriques excitedly called me that Christopher’s Promise of Columbus, Ohio had a custom-built tricycle for him. I headed down to Warwick Neck to find neighbors gathered as Andrew slipped on a helmet and suddenly was free to move again under his own power. He was exuberant.
Then there was the encounter at Tennis RI. Andrew was in a wheelchair on the court.
How would this work, I wondered? How could Andrew hit the ball; how would he get around the court?
Doug reminded me of the event, how coach Tait Ehrenclou tossed him a ball and I told Andrew to hit it at me so I could get the picture. He hit me all right and everyone laughed.
The line moved slowly, more people standing to fill the room.
Doug told me of his passion for tennis, how he grew up just outside the Chad Brown complex, spending hours hitting balls against a wall and those who believed in him and mentored him. There was more to it. He was born with a disability and told me at an early age his dreams of being an athlete were labeled absurd. Doug won’t let his dream die and surely that’s why he was such a believer in Andrew.
There were so many believers. They filled this room, the next and the next where his parents Tim and Cathy and his brother Brendan stood.
In the second room, as we sat looking at family pictures on a giant screen to music, images caught Andrew as a boy with his friends in the snow; on Christmas day; on outings; on graduation day in this robe and wearing a mortar board and at a party – perhaps a birthday – with his lips smeared with chocolate cake.
“He’s always smiling,” said Doug. He was right. But it wasn’t just for the camera.
I remember the last doughboy dash, hosted in Andrew and Zach McMillan’s (who also suffers from A-T) honor by Iggy’s at Oakland Beach. Runners were registering, city officials hobnobbed, volunteers raced to take their station where participants would grab a bag of doughboys and wolf them down as they pushed toward the finish line.
“Where’s Andrew?” I recall asking Fire Chief James McLaughlin. He pointed.
I spotted him from a distance. He was in the midst of a crowd, yet alone observing. He was smiling. He saw me. I snapped a picture.
I didn’t realize it then, but I did as the line moved in front of the open casket and Andrew ever so peaceful – beautiful. I watched as the family greeted everyone, individually and lovingly. How is that possible at such time of loss?
It was family faith in Andrew that shone so brightly, made him an inspiration and brought community together. That’s the treasure Andrew and the Martins have given us.