Sydney Geoffrey Armstrong
May 21, 2008
Sydney Geoffrey Armstrong was born in 1919 in England to working class parents in a family that included one brother named Bill. Geoffrey’s father worked as a railroad clerk. His mother — the stronger personality of Geoffrey’s two parents — was a strict disciplinarian who was determined that her sons would rise above their working class roots. To this end Sydney studied accounting.
During World War II Geoffrey served in the British armed forces in the great struggle against the Nazis. Shortly after the war Geoffrey met June, and they fell in love and were married in 1947. Geoffrey took a job working for an English China Company that sent the couple across the Atlantic to live first in Montreal, and then in New York City, where together Geoffrey and June proceeded to raise their family of five children: beginning with the twins Pat and Pam, followed by Geoffrey, then Brian, and finally Richard. From these five children would eventually come ten grandchildren.
Given that his mother reared him to be a regimented and reserved British gentleman, it was not surprising that Geoffrey became himself a father who required order and stern discipline from the children he raised. His children, however, growing up in the affluence and upheaval of American culture in the sixties and the seventies, rebelled as was inevitable against the stiff bridle their father sought to impose.
Geoffrey was deeply shaped by his experience of growing up in working class England and in sharing in the great national sacrifice required to defeat Hitler and the Nazis. By nature and by upbringing, however, he was disinclined to talk about his personal experience, and so it is easy to imagine Geoffrey appearing at times to his children as though he were from an altogether different planet.
In the midst of such turbulent times, and undergoing certain professional setbacks, Geoffrey reached mid-life apparently feeling somewhat lost at sea. Perhaps nostalgic for the land in which he grew up, he abruptly moved his family that now consisted of five adolescents back to England, but work opportunities weren’t good there, and within a year and half June and Geoffrey brought the family back to the US. Eventually Geoffrey ended up getting divorced from June, who was the one great love of his life. He took a job in Atlanta, spending the next two decades of his life living down there. Despite the distance, Geoffrey never shirked his responsibilities as the provider of the family, and did what he could to maintain contact.
Geoffrey was by nature strong-willed and determined. Through the vast majority of his life he maintained vigorous good health, getting outside to walk most days. He enjoyed playing tennis. To the end of his life he possessed a keen intellect. He enjoyed reading about his hero Winston Churchill, as well as about science and the intricacies of Einstein’s physics.
Hearing his story, the impression I have is that somewhere in midlife Geoffrey begin to realize that what life required of him at this point in the journey had less to do with the head and more to do with the heart. By all accounts he began to mellow, making a concerted effort to be a better father and grandfather in the particular ways in which he may have felt he had been deficient during the stressful, younger years of his life. He overcome his instinctual reserve to begin reaching out emotionally to the people he loved in ways he simply could not have done earlier in his life. The expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” didn’t apply to Geoffrey. He changed in his latter years in profound and moving ways, coming to find a peace that he had never known earlier in life.
Five years ago Geoffrey moved back to New Jersey in order to be closer to his beloved family. He was proud of his five children and his ten grandchildren, and grateful for the kindnesses they, along with June, showed him as his health declined.
In the end, life is a spiritual journey. We often make it out to be other things, but it all comes down to learning how to love and be loved. The Apostle Paul wrote that everything in this life passes away, except love. “Love never ends.“ The one thing that is eternal, the endures forever, is love.
Geoffrey was created in his mother’s womb by a God who cherished him, and who was with him in every breath he took. And this same God was there with open arms to welcome Geoffrey home when he took his last breath this past Sunday.
In a certain sense, learning to live and love is about learning to how to let go and die. Our instinct is to clutch, and in the end, we are required to let go of everything in order that we may enter the everlasting light and love of God.
The best moments of this life are but dim reflections of a joy and peace and love that we will encounter waiting for us when we die, if we can but let go open our hearts to this gift. This, I believe is what Geoffrey spent the latter portion of his life preparing himself to do.
When we reach heaven, we let go of everything within us that in the course of our lives has in one way or another been blocking the love that is within us. We become who we were always meant to be.
Geoffrey is absolutely whole now. He loves you still — wishes only good for you. It is so very beautiful where Geoffrey is now, and one day you will see him again.
In the meantime, this life is so very important in ways we are disinclined to acknowledge. It’s the simple things that count; the little acts of tenderness, forgiveness, and kindness that we offer both to ourselves and to one another, that truly matter in the end. The way through this life often isn’t easy, and frequently we stumble and sometimes we find ourselves feeling absolutely lost at sea. But part of what we are learning is how to get back up again, and in humility to try again to live out the love out of which we were created.
Geoffrey left you with some wonderful memories of love shared and lessons learned in the practice of love. Cherish this love. Strive to offer it freely to one another and to everyone God places in your path.
And one day we will all be reunited in that place where there is no death, no pain, no tears. Amen.