Errol Milner Clifford 2006-2009
Friday, January 08, 2010
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Errol Milner Clifford
March 8, 2006 – December 23, 2009
Unable are the Loved to die
For Love is Immortality,
Nay, it is Deity --
Unable they that love -- to die
For Love reforms Vitality
Order of Service
Music written for Errol and Owen
Träumerei: Robert Schumann
Blackbird: Paul McCartney
Jeffrey Dean Foster & Billie Feather
Words and Benediction
Errol Milner Clifford
December 30, 2009
Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University
When I was a boy, two of my heroes were cowboy movie stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I know now that they were B movie stars, but I didn’t know that then, and I wouldn’t have cared if I had known. One of the things that made them special in the eyes of a lot of people was their large family, which included four adopted children. In 1950 Dale Evans gave birth to their only birth-child, a daughter who was born with Downs Syndrome. Robin died before her second birthday. Dale Evans wrote a best-selling book about their daughter. The title played off an obscure verse of scripture found in one of those seldom read books in the back of the New Testament, the Epistle to the Hebrews. The verse encouraged readers to “show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” That was the title of the book -- Angel Unaware.
You didn’t have to believe in angels, you didn’t have to share Dale Evans theology to understand that for this couple the birth of their daughter was not an undiluted tragedy, as some would see it, it certainly was not punishment for anything; it was a gift. She was a gift.
After she and Jonathan had finished writing the obituary for Errol, Kerry ran the article through word check and found that she had used the word “joy” eight times, including in the very first sentence: “Errol Milner Clifford was pure joy.”
We gather this winter afternoon, an impromptu congregation having only one thing in common – a three-year-old boy who had “a host of significant medical challenges, but that didn’t stop him from always being the happiest person in the room.” We have been summoned by a child who never spoke a word, who changed everyone he met just by being who he was. He was a gift to us all.
There are several organizations and groups of people that the families would like to thank for their contributions to this service:
- Dewey’s Bakery and Krankie’s Coffee, who along with volunteers from Knollwood Baptist Church, are providing the reception that will be held after the service in the narthex (to which you are all invited);
- Wake Forest Baptist Church for providing this space and assistance with the sound system;
- Seeds of Love for providing ushers;
- Redeemer Presbyterian Church for providing nursery workers.
Several people will speak this afternoon. Their names are listed in the Order of Service. There will be no further introductions. We will try to put our best thoughts and our deepest feelings into words, knowing that words are puny things, wholly inadequate to express that which is ultimately true. The music may say it better. A poet assures us that some things are “too splendid for speech but ripe for a song.” (Thomas Troeger)
We are so sad.
The harsh truth is that much of what we are feeling is unremarkable. Many lives are
mourned for being too short. Far too many lives are filled with struggle and pain. Even so, we
are here with such deep feeling, and in such great numbers, because of what was and will
always be extraordinary: The phenomenal life of Errol Milner Clifford.
To understand the phenomenon who was Errol, I go back to a happy afternoon six and
a half years ago. Cary was pregnant with Owen, Errol’s big brother. Dean Clifford, Cary’s
supermom, was hosting a shower. After the honorees opened gifts, after we admired the shiny,
squeaky and fluffy baby things, Jonathan asked us each in turn to offer a word of advice to the
parents-to-be. I have no memory of what I said, but I will never forget the response of Fred,
Cary’s dad. His advice: “Say Yes as often as you can.”
I thought that was ridiculous. Say Yes as often as you can? Isn’t that exactly what’s
wrong with kids these days? Indulgent parents who say, “Of course dear, you can have that
third bowl of ice cream even though we are going to have dinner in twenty minutes”? Come
on, Fred, that’s just crazy grandpa talk.
I don’t know if Jonathan and Cary intentionally took his advice. We may not have
talked about that. But in watching them as parents, I have learned that grandpa is not as crazy
as he seemed. To see what Yes has meant to Owen, all you have to do is drive past their house
on an afternoon when he has been out playing with his pal Roman. You will see proof of
childhood bliss all over the place, scattered in the grass, dangling from bushes and trees,
painted on the sidewalk, spilling off the porch. Those declarations of Yes will show you what
a creative, passionate, joyful, deep-feeling boy Owen has become.
Owen you will always be the very, very, very best big brother.
Cary’s labor with Errol was easy and quick. It was the last easy thing. One crisis
followed another. Days and nights brought panic, terror, anguish, despair. Being Errol’s
parents required physical and emotional endurance. There were times of relief and stretches
resembling normality, yet even the best of days took place against a backdrop of constant
But when the doctors said No, Jonathan and Cary said Yes. When the insurance
company said No, Jonathan and Cary said Yes. Medicaid: No. Cary and Jonathan: Yes. Five
heart surgeries, every one with complications. Long, long hospital stays. Countless infections.
All those trips to the emergency room. Endless medications, evaluations, therapies, checkups:
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
They looked into Errol’s eyes and they said Yes. And when his eyes were closed they
held his hand or touched his foot and they said Yes. Never anything but Yes.
And Errol said Yes right back. He said Yes with those eyes, with his famous smile and
intoxicating laugh. His love for his family and love of life just bubbled out of him. Even his
hair was happy.
Did his parents keep Errol going, or was it the other way around?
His parents said Yes to us, too. With Jonathan’s lithe and heart wrenching words, with
Cary’s radiant photographs, with their generosity and grace and honesty and good humor, they
welcomed us into Errol’s life. And we were all enriched, whether we held him in our arms and
fed him, or knew him only from the farmer’s market, or from just watching him with his family as they sat a few tables away at Mary’s. Who could hear that laugh and not be in a better mood? He was playful. He was funny. The guy had charisma.
Without a speaking a word, Errol said Yes to everybody. Just think about what he
accomplished. He worked hard for his teachers and therapists at the Children’s Center, and his
physical and mental development surpassed professional expectations. He did his best, and he
brought out the best in us. He made us more accepting, more patient, more generous. He
inspired so much creativity: in his parents, in painters, musicians, cooks, gardeners, jewelry
makers. He brought neighbors together in a way that will have long-lasting reverberations in
our town and beyond. He even became a nationally recognized advocate for universal health
Above all, he generated so much love. You can feel it in this room. He was one
Errol gave us much to ponder. This is what I keep asking: What was the source of all
that joy? Was it a special gift, unique to one child, or was it something we all have within us,
something we all could experience and share if we got in touch with our inner Errol. Think
how the world would be if we were all more like the Little Man, if our love of others and love
of life just bubbled out of us, if we learned to shout Yes as loudly as Errol did.
Cary, Jonathan, and Owen, we have watched in awe and humility the incredible journey that you have taken over the last four years. Errol was a great gift to us. His purity and joy lifted us and even now carries us through the darkness.
You have been generous in sharing Errol with us. Thank you. We envy you your integrity and transparency and strength. When you asked me to do this, I searched for words that might capture your spirit—the foundations on which you live your life. Let me read two short passages.
One year, A. R. Ammons wrote a long poem on one of those old adding machine tapes. He started writing on the tape on December 6th and came to the end of it on January 12th. He called the resulting book Tape for the Turn of the Year. There is a passage in which he expresses his own stance toward life:
December 22. 10:17 p. m.
we went to church at 4
I held a lighted candle
In my hand—as all the
others did—and helped
sing “Silent Night”: the
church lights were doused:
the preacher lit his
candle & from his the
deacons lit theirs &
then the deacons went down
the aisles & gave light to
& the light poured
down the rows &
the singing started:
though the forces
have different names
in different places &
times, they are
real forces which we
I can either believe
in them or doubt them &
I believe that man is
& of short duration in the
& eternal: I believe
it’s necessary to do
as we can best define it:
I believe we must
discover and accept the
that best testify:
I’m on the side of
whatever the reasons are
we are here:
we do the best we can
& it’s not enough
Those last two lines express the reality we all live in. It is never enough. Nobility comes in doing the best we can. You have shown us how to do that.
As many of you know, Errol was a big supporter of President Obama. It is fitting then, that I use Obama’s words taken from his eulogy for Senator Kennedy to conclude. President Obama said:
What we can do is to live out our lives as best we can with purpose, and love, and joy. We can use each day to show those who are closest to us how much we care about them, and treat others with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. And we can strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings.
Errol’s short life has and will have lasting influence. Today, we choose life--a life of purpose, love, and joy—as his legacy.
I am so honored to speak today on behalf of all of my friends and colleagues from The Children’s Center about our love for Errol. Errol had the largest circle of friends of any three-year-old I’ve ever known. The staff, students and families at our school were a big piece of that circle. Errol’s true second home was The Children’s Center, and we think of ourselves as his second family.
Many of you have driven by our little red brick building on the corner of Coliseum and Reynolda for years. It looks like it could be a daycare center, but it is actually a very special public school, and a United Way agency, for children birth through age 11. Most of our students were born with physical or developmental challenges. It’s a place where kids work hard to reach their highest potential, and it’s a place where families’ lives are transformed by a sense of community and belonging. But the most important thing for you to know is this – The Children’s Center is, above all, a happy place. Our director, Mike Britt, likes to say that it’s the most inspiring place he’s ever been, including church. He’s right.
Cary and Jonathan first walked through our doors holding tiny baby Errol almost three years ago. When I met with them that first day, they were still trying to process the frightening fact that their child was very sick. As we toured the building, the sight of so many wheelchairs and strange devices must have taken their breath away. It was just beginning to sink in for them that they had joined a new club. The members of this club don’t sign up; membership is thrust upon them.
Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for Sesame Street and herself the mother of a child with disabilities, wrote a story in 1987 called “Welcome to Holland.” Her story tells us how Jonathan and Cary must have felt in those first weeks and months of Errol’s life, and on that first visit to The Children’s Center .
When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland." "Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy." But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland, and there you must stay.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met. It's a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy. But after you've been there for a while you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills.... and tulips… and Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned." But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.
So Jonathan and Cary found themselves in Holland. But just as Emily’s story tells us, Holland is a lovely and special place in its own right. As we walked through the school with Errol that first day, staff after staff member stopped Jonathan and Cary in the hall to chat. “What a beautiful boy!” “How old is he?” “When will he be starting school here?” So, Jonathan and Cary made the decision to share Errol with us. And I don’t mind telling you that they were a little wary at first. “How can we put our sweet fragile baby in school? How could these strangers ever love him and care for him and meet all of his needs?” Cary politely but emphatically let us know that she would just be “hanging around” in the classroom. In case we needed her. All day. But it wasn’t long before she saw that Anne, Audrey and Paula loved Errol as if he were their own baby, and that our nurses, Shelley and Becky, provided him with an impeccable level of care. Soon Cary was dropping him off, trusting us to do what we do so well.
How can I describe to you the great fun Errol had at The Children’s Center, and all the progress he made? He found brand new ways to engage with the world. He learned to press buttons to activate toys, and to participate in circle time. He was delighted by music classes with Dr. Beall, and stories read aloud. He loved the sunshine on his face during recess, and the paint on his fingers during art. Jonathan reports that Errol cackled and squealed with delight every day as they drove into our parking lot.
Jonathan and Cary were surprised to learn, after a year had passed, that we would be promoting Errol from the babies’ room to a toddler classroom. How could new teachers possibly be as caring and dedicated as Anne, Audrey and Paula? Karen, Susan and Tamara in the toddler room were soon just like family, too. Then when Errol turned three last March, we told Jonathan and Cary that it was time for another big step – we were moving him up the hall to “big school” – a three-year-old preschool class. Big school? Up the hall? The inside joke between Cary, Jonathan and his new teachers, Jennifer and Paula, was that Errol was being sent to “boot camp.” But Errol had an absolute blast. Preschool meant new friends, field trips to the grocery store and the fire station, therapeutic swimming classes, and even horseback riding.
Errol found a comfortable home with us – but in truth so did the entire Milner – Clifford family. When we opened a regular kindergarten class last year, Jonathan and Cary signed big brother Owen right up. What a great treat it was for us to have both of these handsome, brilliant boys in our school! Cary began arriving in our lobby every Friday at noon with a basket of her delicious sandwiches and sweet treats. I am willing to confess that during particularly tiring weeks, the thought of one of her pimiento cheese sandwiches, and a giant oatmeal raisin cookie, might have been all that kept me going until Friday! Jonathan’s amazing blog about life with Errol allowed everyone to keep up with his progress, his milestones, and of course his opinions – Errol’s opinions, not Jonathan’s – on things such as George Bush’s foreign policy. (Errol thought it was reckless, by the way.) What would we do without Jonathan’s very gifted and sometimes wickedly-funny writing? Even as the world came crashing down last week, Jonathan found the energy and time to help us all through the darkness with his words.
Errol lit up our school like a firecracker. With my office right by the front door, I had the joy of seeing him roll into the lobby each day with a grin as big as anything I’ve ever seen. Errol, with his shock of Albert Einstein hair, and his professor’s glasses. He greeted each staff member and each friend with an open heart,and an eagerness to connect. He had a gentleness and a kindness of spirit that we, if we have any bit of sense, should all try to emulate. His teachers, every one of them, first say this if you ask about Errol: He was a happy child. As Jonathan also noted in his blog, Errol seemed to be in on the world’s biggest secret: to live in the moment.
In a class I took this fall, I was able to pick my own topic for a photo-essay assignment. I chose to focus on Errol. I ended my essay with these words about him:
Do you know many preschoolers who have:
· Raised over $50,000?
· Started an organic bakery?
· Inspired a “Day in the Park” for heart health?
· Gathered a neighborhood together to prepare a meal for 300 people?
· Started a “back to gardening” movement?
· Taught a whole community of children to look beyond disability when making friends?
And these are just the things Errol accomplished outside of school – his extracurricular activities!
Cary has already promised us that the sandwiches and treats will continue on Fridays. Both Cary and Jonathan have asked to volunteer at The Children’s Center with the teachers and students they love so much. All of us gathered here today have struggled this past week to make some sense of this great loss, to look forward with some sort of hope. Cary and Jonathan have shown us the way, which is no surprise.
The Children’s Center family – teachers, assistants, custodians, therapists, office staff – I wish I could name every one - will be eternally grateful that we were chosen to be a part of Errol’s journey. Jonathan and Cary, thank you for sharing Errol and Owen with us. Thank you for being residents of our little corner of Holland. Errol was as unique and miraculous as a tulip, and as beautiful and rare as a windmill. He was truly a Rembrandt – a masterpiece.
A memorial service is by its very nature a corporate event in which we remember, we grieve, we celebrate and we offer support to our friends and family members. But grief is perhaps the most intensely personal and private of all experiences. It seemed appropriate that we provide a space in which each of us can deal with our own memories, thoughts and feelings. I encourage you to use the next few moments to pray, meditate or simply to be in this moment of profound silence. If you wish to have a guide for your meditation, we have provided a poem sent to Cary and Jonathan by two of Jonathan’s former students. It is by Emily Dickinson – “Unable are the loved to die.”
Today I speak on behalf of Jonathan and Cary’s friends and neighbors in Washington Park and all those who supported Seeds of Love for Errol, many of you who are here today.
Errol is a beacon in our community, and Jonathan and Cary, you can be so proud of the fact that Errol brought hundreds of friends and neighbors together to work together for a common purpose, and taught our neighborhood that when people work together with trust and respect and effort anything is possible.
In our hearts there are three words that perfectly describe Errol. These words are Happiness, Loving and Teacher.
Happiness is defined as: Feeling, showing or expressing joy. And if you close your eyes for a moment now, and picture Errol’s face, with his open smile, bright eyes and cool black glasses you will remember that he radiated happiness. That is who Errol Clifford is. And that is how we will always remember him, a boy who could, in a matter of seconds, make his contagious smile or laughter brighten our day.
Errol’s happiness came from so many places and from everyone he met; and it was as if he was able to take the joys of the world and store them inside for when he needed the reserve, or you needed them.
On the night of the Seeds of Love party, there was a room full of people, the mayor had just spoken, children were darting about as the singers from the School of the Arts performed, and I looked over at Errol, who was beside his father, and wondered what he was able to comprehend about the event. He could not tell us what he felt, but by the look on his face, I did not need to hear his words, as he sat next to his father Jonathan laughing and clapping. As Jonathan has always said, “Errol is the happiest person in the room”. And he certainly was that night and all who were fortunate to be there were happy alongside him.
As one of my friends said, “Errol’s store of happiness is still here, ready for us to use as we need it.” And I encourage all of us, over the coming months and years, to remember and draw strength from Errol’s exceptional joy and happiness for those he loved and the community that loved him.
Errol gave his love unconditionally and it was the purest kind. Errol broke down barriers, created a natural sense of trust among people, and Team Errol was created and became united because of our love for the little man. Errol’s love was indeed very powerful
How did this young boy get so many Washington Park residents to start vegetable gardens? How did this three-year-old get chefs to cook a meal for almost 400 hundred people?
How did Errol get film students from the School of the Arts to make a movie about seeds of love? How did the little man get lawyers and architects to weed the gardens, for free? Simply put, it was because we all loved Errol.
We loved him enough to pick our produce in the pouring rain, and laugh while doing so, two nights before the party. We loved him enough to give our time and energy through the summer to help him and his family. We loved him enough to throw him one of the biggest parties any us of had ever been to.
The love that Jonathan, Cary and Owen have for Errol they graciously shared with all of us and allowed our community to develop strong binding relationships through Errol that would not have been otherwise possible. We are privileged and indeed honored to have been able to partake in the love they had for their beautiful child and brother the power of that love will keep Errol with us forever.
Errol is his father’s son, He was an educator who taught us so much. He taught us to value the simple things in life. He could watch his hands and delight in the fact that he could make his fingers dance in the sunlight. He taught us about the power of community and how we can connect with each other, we just have to be open and trusting like he is. Team Errol trusted each other, and with Errol as our guide somehow the gardens grew, the food got cooked, and the band played on. He taught our children not to shy away from those who are different, or have a disability. The children in the neighborhood, including my own, learned to look past his wheelchair, and to not be afraid of him because he was different. They learned how to have fun with Errol by playing peek a boo or singing to him. He taught us to accept life as it comes and not to let the physical world affect our state of mind. What he taught us is etched in the deepest parts of our hearts and minds and this legacy will live with each of us every day.
Errol, at age three, you are a hero to us. Your sweet and gentle smile, and incredible sunny outlook, convinces me that you found the golden key and purpose to your life.
Thank you so very much for masterfully using that golden key to unleash the power of love and real community into our neighborhood.
Your beautiful life and example will live with us forever and we will appreciate and love you always. Thank you.
Cary and Jonathan, one of the remarkable things about the beautiful obituary you wrote for Errol was the lengthy list of people you thanked – doctors, nurses, teachers, friends, co-workers, family members, most of them by name. And well you should have. Hearing of their acts of love and devotion, I recalled something an elderly man said to me: “I didn’t accomplish very much. And I ain’t leaving much in the way of material things. But I had the best friends in the world.” So do you. On this day of mixed sorrow and celebration that is one thing you can be truly thankful for.
In the days ahead there will be times when you will need them again. And knowing you, you will think, “I can’t take advantage of my friends after all they’ve done.” Sure you can. That’s what they’re there for. They will tell you that. We know that there is a limit to what we can do. There are places we can’t go. There is a holy of holies deep in the human heart where promises are made and dreams are stored and hopes and fears reside. We can’t go there with you. No one can. We can’t do much but we can stay upright. So lean on us when you need to.
Since this is a time for expressing gratitude, there are a couple of things I think your friends and family would like to thank you for. We would like to thank you for the example of love, commitment, strength and patience you have given us. You have shown us that love is no weak reed. In the words of ancient wisdom, “Love is strong, stronger than death” (Song of Solomon 8:6)
Jonathan, we would like to thank you for taking us along on your painful, joyful, profound journey. Your blog took us to places we never expected to go, and we are better for it.
Our hearts ached when you spread out for all to see the sense of helplessness and hurt you and Cary felt as you watched your dear boy undergo procedure after procedure, surgery after surgery.
We were sobered by your honesty, like when you pondered, “If it were suddenly possible, would I have Errol undergo an operation that would increase his IQ by 30 points or so and make him typical?” And when you answered your own question:
Errol will probably not be tremendously analytical, quick, or abstract in his thinking, but Errol is sweet, lives in the moment, and most importantly is tremendously happy. Errol is exactly what I hope to one day become. I don’t know how Errol would answer the question himself, but as for me I would never choose to subtract one ounce of joy from our blissful Errol boy. (11/02/06)
We didn’t expect to laugh but we did when you said that “Errol is about as stressed as the Dalai Lama after a few drinks” and when you reported that there is a psychiatrist at Duke Hospital named Dr. Looney and a urologist whose name even retirement does not allow me to say out loud in this context.
Thank you for sharing your journey with us. Thanks for sharing Errol with us.
Recently, I was shown something I wrote a long time ago. To be honest, I had completely forgotten it. It looked only vaguely familiar. But I think it sums up my basic outlook on life as well as anything could. I would like to offer it as our benediction today:
From mystery we come,
to mystery we go.
And the coming
and the going
and everything in between