Bittersweet Notes From the Road
Just leaving a pal’s house, let’s call him Jo. I met him 30 years ago. He was a rock star in my world. He’d been handpicked to work with and was a close friend of two of the giants in my field. Let’s call them Joe and Sharon.
Sharon was one of my “lifesavers.” The first time I met her I was part of an audience of more than a thousand. She wouldn’t have known me from a wall hanging. Her words reached right into my soul, as if I was the only one in the room, and I heard her say “There is help available”. I took her up on that offer. She was right. There was. It worked. Joe’s friendship allowed me to have the kind of relationship I couldn’t have with my own dad. Our relationship filled in some of the important empty spaces.
Eventually, I began working for them. That’s how I met Jo. A big, husky, handsome, imposing presence physically and personality-wise. With the long flowing hair of a silver fox, a Harley Davidson riding, gruff, take no prisoner, cigar smoking (only on special occasions), giant of a man who wasn’t afraid to tangle with anyone. No one was going to mess with him (or me if I was with him).
He also possessed the biggest, softest, most tender heart of any man I’ve ever known. He could and was easily, instantaneously, melted and moved to unashamed public tears by nothing more than experiencing the human condition, seeing a hawk, a coyote, a sunset. I loved being in his presence. He taught me what a wonderful blend of great strength and massive softness looked like.
Our first meeting didn’t go the way I would have liked however. I was driving, and we had the windows down, and I started to get cold, so I reached for the buttons that raised the windows.
“Ted!,” (I didn’t hear him call my name). “My fingers!” (I still didn’t hear him, we were listening to a song on the radio) “TEEEEEEEDDDD!!!”, he screamed “YOU ROLLED UP THE WINDOW ON MY F*^•!@g FINGERS, ROLL THE G-@&%#€£d window DOWN, you F#€%@$g idiot”.
I looked over and sure enough the tips of all four fingers of his right hand were wiggling on the other side of the window. Caught between the glass and the window frame. My first attempt to put the window down, failed. Wrong direction. This time, he bellowed in pain.
I’m thinking “OK, that’s it, any chance of making a good impression on him is long gone, he thinks I’m an idiot and will want nothing to do with me.” I did eventually get the window down. His fingers were not broken. Or squashed; well maybe a little. We still laugh about that today. Thankfully he forgave me but hasn’t forgotten. (He STILL doesn’t allow me to TOUCH the window buttons if we are riding together.)
Over the years we saw each other a lot. We liked being together. We worked together. We had each other’s back through some tough times. I loved his stories that, often as not, ended up in uncontrollable belly laughs. Just as often, they ended up in gentle, voice quivering, full of compassion tears; sometimes both. Sweet, sweet most tender of souls.
One day we were talking, and he called me “Compadre”. I imagined that’s what he called all of friends. As if reading my thoughts, he volunteered, “You know, I don’t have another Compadre”. To this very day I couldn’t tell you how I achieved that status in his eyes and heart. But, I liked it. I treasured it. I still do.
We could, did, and still do talk about anything. Death, life, money, the losses of our lives, our good fortunes, our fears, how we’d been saved by grace many, many times. During an especially dark period of my life, he was the only one who asked about, and who I could talk to about, the feelings of hopelessness, fear and depression I was experiencing.
One day a few years ago, he, I and our wives were on a hike. He had trouble keeping up. Out of breath. I didn’t realize it then but being out of breath on the hike alarmed both Jo and his wife, let’s call her Karen. I received a call a week later. He had gone to the Doctor (He HATES going to the doctor). This indomitable giant of a man had just undergone an emergency procedure to insert a stent. The tears that welled-up surprised me. But I wept for him (and for me, I’m sure).
A few years later we were walking down the street and he said, “Hey Ted, slow down, I’m having trouble keeping up”. The first sign of a neuromuscular issue that has continued to degrade his ability to move about. Then a short while ago, he mentioned he was having trouble remembering things. Another first sign.
He has recently had to give up his precious work. The work that he did as well as anyone I’ve ever known. Work that I believe saved the life and well-being of one of my precious loved ones. He lives 400 miles away. I call him every week. We pick a book to read and talk to each other about how what we’ve read touches us.
We just finished Jayber Crow: A Novel (Port William) by Wendell Berry. If you grew up in the country or in a small town, you might enjoy it. If you didn’t, it’s a painfully beautiful love story, you might enjoy that. Either way it speaks of a part of our country’s history and many of our lives. It does to mine.
This morning we parted, our visit too short. I’m losing him. We all are losing him. And he is losing us. We talk a lot these days of death and of dying and of grief. I’m ironically glad for this chance to lose him. To lose him meant that I’d found him. An incredible gift. Like dark chocolate. Bittersweet.
Have a “Jo”, a “Sharon,” a “Joe”, a “Karen“ in your life? Never too soon or too late to tell them. Write a story about them and send it to them. When? When they enter your mind is always a perfect time, as they may have just now.