It's not often that you leave a memorial service feeling better than when you arrived.
But that's the way Dianne and I felt after leaving a service for our friend and my former mayoral aide Ray Harmon in Milwaukee last night. Ray died last week at age 46 after a life long struggle with a weak heart.
Ray was remembered by a series of politicians, family and close friends. There was music and prayers and scripture readings and poetry. Lots of laughter and very few tears.
Most of his lifelong friends talked about meeting each other as kids on a city basketball court. One of them, Percy Eddie, explained how Ray would tell them that he did not play defense. "Just get me the ball in the corner for the jump shot," he remembered Ray telling them. "You know I'll make it."
Ray's son, Dominique, who had his own heart transplant just a few months ago, received a basketball signed by his father's close friends.
"This isn't just a basketball," one of them said to Dominique. "This is a connector. It connected us all together since we were kids and now it connects us to you." He explained that the ball wasn't just signed by Ray's friends; they had also included their phone numbers.
"Whenever you're feeling down or in need of any kind of help at all you just grab this and call any number you see. We'll be there."
That epitomized Ray Harmon. He was always there for people, he connected them together.
Ray spent his life doing that instead of feeling sorry for himself, though he had plenty of opportunity to do just that. His heart condition was inherited. He didn't smoke or drink. It wasn't a product of his lifestyle or his choices -- it was his destiny. He could have said why me? Instead, he said, "How can I help others?"
Ray made some news in 2006 when he became the first Wisconsin patient to live off a new external heart machine while he waited for a donor. That wait strung along for six months. Imagine that. Half a year in a hospital attached to an external mechanical heart, and no complaints out of Ray Harmon.
By the time I met him in late 2007, he had a new transplanted heart and he was ready to get back to work. I remember one day early on in my office when I was asking him about what motivated him and what he really wanted to work on.
Not thinking about the context, I just asked the clichéd question, "Ray, where's your heart at?"
As the words left my mouth I realized what I had said. Ray paused for a second and looked up at the ceiling as if in deep thought. "You know, I honestly don't know," he said.
We all started laughing. Ray had that kind of sense of humor. Sharp, perfectly timed, but also gentle. Never cutting.
One place his heart was really at was helping others who had gone through some of what he had. So, he threw himself into helping organize the Transplant Games, which came to Madison a summer later. This was something he loved being a part of, and he contributed greatly to the games' success.
Throughout that work and in everything he worked on, Ray was just about the calmest man I've ever known. This is a valuable commodity in a mayor's office where things can get tense in a hurry. He knew when to lighten things up with just the right dry quip. Just as in those pickup basketball games, Ray didn't worry too much about playing defense or working the ball inside; he just posted up and gracefully, effortlessly banged in his shots from the perimeter.
Ray obviously attracted people like that, because this personality defined the tone of last night's service. Smart, funny, gentle, warm.
Ray Harmon only got 46 years of life. By any measure that's not enough and it wasn't what his friends and family deserved. But I think Ray would say that you get what you get. You do your best. You keep your wits about you. You enjoy your family and your friends and your life as much and for as long as you can.
You take the jump shot from the corner. And then you watch the arc of the ball and you hear it gently slash through the nylon. Nothin' but net.