***these pictures are way out of order. I just pulled some of the 400+ I have of him.***
I got word today that our dear friend, Cliff Merritt went home to be with Jesus after a 4+ year battle with cancer. While we rejoice in the news that he is with Jesus, our hearts are broken for our own loss. After some time processing this on my own, I pulled Jonah into my lap and told him the news. We cried together.
Dan & I have known for a couple of weeks that the time was near. I spent two days crying and reminiscing. (I'm so grateful for this blog because it put many of our memories right at my fingertips!) We began to prepare Jonah that he might not see Cliff when we get there next week. I longed for him to make it long enough for us to hug him once last time and to thank him for his investment in our lives. But, I also asked God to let him not suffer anymore. So, my sadness today is also gratitude for Cliff being pain free and in the presence of Jesus.
We first met Cliff in April of 2002. He was on the search committee that called Dan to FBC, Vidalia. We flew into Jackson, drove to Vidalia, had a few minutes to change clothes then met the entire committee at The Sandbar for dinner. Cliff sat right across from us. He ordered his salad with bleu cheese dressing. I thought that was so gross. He was a fascinating story teller that seemed to command the attention of the entire table.
Later, Dan was voted in as Associate Pastor of Worship. Before flying back to Kentucky the next day, we met with Cliff. He gave us the phone number to the bank where he worked. He told us that he could help us get our banking transferred and do everything we needed from a distance. We thought he was the head teller or something. Come to find out, he was the President of the Bank. That is a fact most people would have mentioned upon meeting us. Not Cliff. He was one of the most unpretentious people you would ever meet.
During our first week in Vidalia, Dan got breakfast, lunch and dinner invitations over and over. Cliff was the first person to invite me also. He picked us up for lunch and took us to Pearl Street Pasta. I lamented about my struggles to find a job. He made a call and I had an interview the next day at 2:00 p.m. That call ended up being my job for the 7 years and 3 months we lived there.
In October of 2004, we went to New York City. Dan had the opportunity to attend a conference at The Brooklyn Tabernacle. I mentioned the trip to Cliff and Debra and after a few minutes of deliberation, they were in. We had a wonderful time in the city with them. The Knapps, another couple from our church went also. We sang on the American Idol Stage. Dan is the only one who actually sounded good. Somewhere, I have a picture of Cliff dancing with Beyonce and staring down Morgan Freeman. (at the wax museum...ha!)
I was going out shopping one night while we were there and Dan said "don't spend too much money!' Cliff promptly reminded me that he could give me whatever we needed because I brought my banker to NYC with me!
They came to Florida about six months after we moved here. I wrote a blog post after our visit. You can read that here. It tells so much about why we love Cliff and Debra. (or Cwiff and Beppa as Jonah named them!) I just read the comment that Beppa left on that post and it reminded me of a special time of watching Jonah and Cliff play with cars under the bathroom door of their hotel room. Cliff was a very important man at an important convention yet he was upstairs in his hotel room playing hot wheels with a three year old.
He loved Jonah from the moment he found out he was on the way. He and Debra were the first two people to know I was expecting a baby. We stood in their bathroom and unfolded a dishtowel full of positive pregnancy tests. He was the first person to the hospital on the day of Jonah's birth. I was in the delivery room and a knock came on the door. Dan opened it expecting to find a grandparent but found Cliff instead. He came over before he went to work that day. He just wanted us to know he loved us, he was praying for a safe and healthy delivery and that he would be back later. He did come back. And, he fell in love with my little Jonah.
When Jonah learned to talk, he quickly claimed Cliff's boat as "my boat!" Sometimes he would call it "our boat. But, when Cliff and Debra started calling the boat "Jonah's boat," it just kind of stuck.
Cliff always made sure Jonah had money for his pockets. I'm almost positive that started with Jonah asking for money. From that point forward, Jonah never saw Cliff without getting money for his pockets. He has filled many a piggy bank at our house.
Jonah never knew how important Cliff was in the city of Vidalia. To him, he was just "Cwiff." Therefore, every time we stepped foot in the bank, he made sure someone let Cliff know he was there. If he was at the bank, he came down to see his buddy or called him up to his office.
Jonah was even the little boy in the Delta Bank ad campaign. He had a lot of fun with that. And, we ended up with some pretty cute pictures in the process.
Jonah was quite surprised to go into Cliff's office and find himself on Cliff's computer.
They played in boxes together. They raced. They played ball. They played golf. They watched movies. They fished. They laughed. They played Wii. They always had fun together.
Debra called one night and said "Bring Jonah down. Cliff just bought him a boat." He was already in bed but we got him out and headed down the street. (Cliff and Debra bought our old house when we moved into the parsonage.)
Looking back through the 400+ pictures I have of Cliff, many of them have Cliff in his work clothes. He never failed to walk right over to see Jonah when got out of his car. I probably have just as many pictures of him with a tie on as I do in plain clothes.
Cliff and Debra bought Jonah a Tot-Rod and a Sand/Water table for his first birthday. On his second Christmas, they bought him a cozy coupe. On his third birthday, they bought him a bike. I told them they started a tradition of providing wheels for Jonah and they should probably go into hiding before his 16th birthday. Ha!
The next pictures are from a 4th of July picnic at FBCV. They make me smile because there sits Cliff in the midst of all those little kiddos. They all loved him.
We always loved to see Cliff walk the Survivor's lap at Relay for Life. What an inspiration he has been to so many people.
Cliff was at all three of Jonah's birthday parties in Vidalia. And, he didn't just sit in a chair and watch. He was fully engaged. He wore a monkey shirt to the first party. He put a Mickey head on his own head at the second. He strolled in with a big boy bike at the third. He always celebrated Jonah.
Cliff was such a good friend to Dan. He was an example of Integrity. He showed Dan what being a good daddy and husband was. He offered him wisdom and direction. He recognized a void in Dan's life and stepped in and filled that role many times. He always spoke truth to him and had his best interest at heart. I had the opportunity to write Cliff a letter a few weeks ago when it seemed he wouldn't overcome this evil beast called cancer. One of the things I told him was that because of his belief in Dan and his ministry, he would forever have a part on every life God changes through Dan's ministry. You see, Cliff was on the committee that called Dan as Worship Leader and then as Senior Pastor. He was part of both committees that took a chance on a guy with no experience. Because he believed in Dan, we are where we are today. Because he encouraged Dan in his education, he is well on his way to finishing his Doctorate. I'll be forever grateful to him for his role in Dan's life.
When Cliff was on a certain type of Chemo, it made him incredibly cold. Even in the dead of summer, he would have to wear long sleeves, pants and gloves. Even though he was FREEZING cold, he came and hunted Easter eggs with Jonah.
When we went home last summer, Cliff had lost his hair due to the latest round of chemo. Jonah was quite intrigued, a little concerned but so happy to be with his buddy. He was looking so forward to seeing Cliff this time next week when we get to Vidalia.
Hey, Jonah even got Cliff, a LA Tech & LSU fan, to ring a cowbell at the MSU/Tech Football game. That is real love.
What a good, good man Cliff Merritt was. We have so many funny memories and stories of the time we have known him. He is one of those people that make life better for so many. Just last night, my friend Sue said "he has helped so many people and most of them don't have a clue that he was the one who did it." He was a kind, kind man who worked very hard to make something of himself then spent his life making other people's lives better. People who work for him say he is the best boss they have ever had. His friends say he is the best friend they have ever had. He is the kind of man that make people ask the age old "why do bad things happen to good people" question. He was a good, good man.
Cliff was at my daddy's funeral. He took Dan and I to dinner that night. He told me then that if I ever needed anything from that moment forward then I should call him. I knew he meant it. Those weren't pat words to a grieving daughter. Those were words of assurance that since my daddy was gone, he would help me in anyway my daddy would have. That is the kind of man he was. Many of you reading this, are nodding your head in agreement. You knew Cliff. You loved Cliff. You know all of these things to be true. Cliff loved his family, his friends and his God. For those of you who didn't have the opportunity, I'm really sorry for you. He was one the of the good ones. I'm go glad he was my friend.