It’s never easy to say goodbye, especially when it is so sudden and unexpected.
The passing of my older brother, Mike, blindsided me when I received a call from my sister-in-law in the wee hours of March 4. She was distraught. She said Mike had died during the night.
Mike and I last spoke the previous Thursday, and we were discussing plans and a future visit my wife and I were to make to his home in Tennessee. We had last seen each other about a month earlier.
The past couple of years had been tough for Mike. As a result of throat cancer and subsequent treatment – which had destroyed his esophagus – he had a feeding tube permanently implanted last fall.
He told me numerous times that having a feeding tube was tough. In addition to no longer being able to taste food, he said one of the things he missed most was drinking coffee.
In 2015 after Mike had completed treatments and was declared cancer-free, we did a multi-day motorcycle camping trip to Cotter, Ark., and the Ozark Mountains. Mike rode his Harley from Tennessee and brought his Razorback cap in honor of the occasion. What memories we made riding together and stopping along the way to take in the beauty of the Ozarks.
It was Mike that I had conversations with about things like family, trucks, motorcycles and politics. Our frequent talks took on added significance following the passing of our father in 2008.
While I rest in the assurance that I will one day see my dear brother, Mike, once again in heaven, I will miss my discussions and his “older brother” wisdom on a variety of matters.
Mike was a retired Army veteran who served in Desert Storm. Our family celebrated him in a wonderful service filled with music, prayer and laughter. A group of his veteran friends were on hand to salute and honor Mike at the funeral. They led the procession on their motorcycles to Kentucky Veteran’s Cemetery in Hopkinsville, Ky., where Mike was buried with military honors. As we passed through Clarksville, Tenn., people pulled their cars and trucks over to the shoulder out of respect; some even got out of their vehicles and saluted as the procession passed by.
Bill Graham of First Baptist Church, Clarksville, a retired Army chaplain, did a wonderful job with Mike’s service. Bill is a dear friend from my days serving at the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission, during which time Bill was at the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board).
The family asked me to write a letter of eulogy. My son, Caleb, read it at the funeral:
Son. Brother. Soldier. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Friend.
These are words we use to describe Michael Roy Yarbrough.
He was taken from us all too soon, but though his passing was sudden and unexpected, the life he lived will remain etched in our collective memory.
As a son, Mike came into the world on a hot and muggy July day in Southeast Missouri, at a time when air conditioning on the farm came in the form of a box fan and an open window.
As an older brother, Mike is recalled as one who didn’t hesitate to get on the floor with his little brother – five years his junior – to play with Matchbox cars.
As a soldier, Mike traveled far away from the known to the unknown – resulting in finding a bride and lifelong partner from halfway around the world.
As a father, Mike juggled the rigors of military service – including numerous moves – to proudly raise two wonderful and successful children.
As a friend, Mike always had time to listen, to smile and to weep – whether it was his family, a friend from high school that he kept in touch with over the years, or military buddies, both past and present.
Mike was tough. In spite of battling cancer for nearly 10 years and suffering the debilitating consequences of a treatment that ultimately contributed to ending his life, Mike never complained, always smiled, and kept an optimistic attitude.
This past year he shared many conversations and texts with those he loved, but I want to read a few that he sent to his younger brother:
Regarding his new RV (from 2015): “I checked the mileage on the RV. I was surprised that I averaged 13 mpg. That was hard driving most of the time. If I was more careful, it would be even better. It would do even better if I kept my foot out of it.”
About Korea: “I meant to tell you that it looks like the balloon might go up in Korea anytime. We need to pray for peace over there. Bad situation everywhere.”
About a Bible verse the Lord laid on his heart: “Here’s a Bible passage I would like to share with you: ‘For I, Jehovah thy God, will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee,’ Isaiah 41:13 (ASV).”
On the Second Amendment: “I’m covered with my military training. I’m not going to get a concealed carry permit because I don’t think it’s something we should have to have – to carry weapons. It’s a right by the Constitution. Alaska is a good example of our rights to bear arms; you have a registered weapon and you can carry without a permit. Texas, the same way. If I want to carry, I’m going to carry.”
Reflections of an aging soldier: “You know I’m an old soldier. I know that might not mean much to you and that’s OK. I have a lot on my mind to be forgiven for. I know I’m forgiven for the things I’ve done. The memories are still there. I pray every day (for God) to help me. Pray for me. It’s hard sometimes.”
Memories of a younger brother and TV: “Do you remember when we played cars together? To me it was a lot of fun. Just thought of that. BTW, I’m watching Svengoolie on MeTV.”
About our grandfather, Hauzie Wingfield, who served in World War II: “He was a great American. He fought in WWII. His feet were so bad that he couldn’t walk to the hog house. He drove everywhere. He said he walked across Germany for the war and said he wasn’t going to walk anywhere again unless he had to. He was in the 3rd Infantry Division. He never talked much about it.”
Lastly, the family would like to thank everyone for sharing your remembrances of Mike, for the love you have expressed, for the many flowers, and most importantly, for your heartfelt prayers. We will forever remember your kindness.
Today, we celebrate that Mike has been healed, is no longer in pain, and is safely in the arms of His Heavenly Father.
Tim Yarbrough is editor/executive director of the Arkansas Baptist News.
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