(note: lyrics in italics from John Mayer's "Say.")
This week, each February, I think of him. Before you read this post, go to the sidebar and turn on the music as you read (or after). Trust me.
He was fifty years old and I loved him.
But I hadn't always.
I thought him gruff. Shallow. Far far removed from my sphere of compatibility. In fact, we had absolutely nothing in common save the one tether between us - his younger brother was my once-upon-a-husband.
And we didn't get along.
I thought at the time I couldn't stand him. We spoke only when necessary at family gatherings through the twenty-six years I was married to his brother. I was happy with that arrangement.
That is, until the day came when....
.....many years later one February morning in the middle of an early spring day of unlikely and brilliant daffodils, I watched my grown son lift his body - frail, thin, seared with cancer - and place him gently on the couch.
They'd counted on each other for two years. One for rides to radiation, chemo, and sworn secrets of doom in the doctor's office and the other for unlikely wisdom and guidance that can only be given by a dying man.
My brother-in-law requested the former.
My son desperately needed the latter.
A five year diagnosis slipped back to three.....then two...and then there was no time. Sometimes late at night when he was in pain and couldn't sleep, my son would put him in his pickup truck and ride him around to his old favorite haunts. He found comfort in the motion, and I suspect, a twinge of macho satisfaction out of kicking my son's stubborn butt, for lack of a better euphemism, when he needed it the most - and holding him accountable.
I would give anything, now, to hear what was said during those long rides down country roads.
A day came when he asked to see me even though I'd long divorced his family. I went. But I was not prepared for what I saw. Years of smoking. Laryngeal cancer. A voice box. A silent ravaged bear of a man.
Fightin' with the shadows in your head.
Livin' out the same old moment
Knowin' you'd be better off instead
"Mama, he wants to talk to you," said my tear-stained boy who held his uncle's hand on the other side of the sofa bed - and then - without regard for a room full of people watching, covered his uncle's hand with both of his and kissed him.
Have you ever seen unabashed love flow between two grown men? It was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things I'd ever witnessed.
He gestured for me to walk over to the couch. I did not understand what he was trying to say. He would lift his arm toward me and touch the index finger to his thumb over and over again. What is he saying? I asked.
"Just a little time, " my son said, "he's trying to tell you there's just a little time."
I hugged him and he mouthed the words "I love you". I left in a puddle of tears, wondering how grace, unspoken and palpably real, could fall through silence like that.
The look on my son's face as he ministered to his beloved uncle day after day took on a spirit of devotion and pride. He was not well himself and struggling without a compass. Until Dee.
They were inseparable. He picked up his daughter at school for him, took care of his lawn, his hunting stands, his dogs, his medicine, kept his medical "secrets", the details of his life - while he tried to eek out one more day on this earth - and in doing so, without saying a word, left an eternal imprint on the face of my child.
It's funny, we'd never shared any semblance to what I considered a deep or meaningful exchange of words, barely more than a 10-minute nod to each other our whole lives. We were worlds apart intellectually and philosophically. He frankly irritated me. And I'm guessing life with me as his sister-in-law was no picnic either. My way wasn't his way and his way wasn't mine. He wanted to clean guns and fish on Sundays. I hated those things. What could I possibly have in common with him? Not a thing. I looked at him strangely. His values. His hobbies. His interests. Trust me, he was, as I've come to understand, just as thrown by mine. But he always had a certain twinkle in his eyes when he talked to me and a barreling laugh. Why couldn't I have appreciated, then, that silly laugh. I would give anything to hear it - and his grumpiness - again.
As the time passed and he grew weaker, I began to see a profound change in my son. Besides the "If you don't get your act together I'm gonna kick your ass" speeches (one of Dee's favorite phrases) that most assuredly occurred in that pickup truck late on more than one occasion, the man who could not speak could say more with one kick-pants look than all my mother-nagging speeches had ever done.
Who knew it was that simple?
When I tell you that the transformation I saw in my boy during that time saved his life, I am not exaggerating. He changed. He morphed into manhood. An evolution that began on dark and deathly country roads in the middle of the night..... words doled out in loving bits and painstaking pieces by a man who could not speak - but had a lot to say.
And so it was....one day....the call came. "Mimi, it's time. It won't be long. We thought you should know."
And he had one more lesson for me.
About speaking up.
And having no regrets. And leaving nothing unsaid.
I asked to be alone with him. I had to let him know what was in my heart. I wanted to see those midnight rides in his eyes. I wanted to tell him what he'd done. He reached out for me and smiled. After a hug or two, I couldn't postpone my words one more second. His 190 lb. body had shriveled to well below 100. He was fading. I thought my heart would explode with sadness.
Do it with a heart wide open.....
I shut the door and took his hand. "I had to come today and tell you....I had to thank you....for what you have done for him." The tears started to flow between us and mine fell on his face. " He would not be here today if not for you." As we talked and laughed about the twists and turns through the years and this uncommon thread of precociousness between us, a peace came over his face and a sigh.... I wondered how all those years ago I'd missed this part of him. And suddenly, it became abundantly clear that the superficial differences paled in comparison to the one thing in the world we had in common and loved with all our hearts.
He smiled. He cried. He nodded as if to say, "He'll be alright, Mimi."
And he was right.
"Of all the wonderful things you have done in your life, I told him, "know that this is one of the most important things you've ever done. I love you. I've really always loved you."
I kissed him for the last time and left with a sense of closure and faith. Somehow, between the morphine, mercy, and loving friends and family, he'd found his peace with God. I felt it with him there and knew he was not afraid that day. About a week later, I sang Amazing Grace at his funeral service. I was so proud to honor him - and so humbled. His simple acts of kindness - and unspeakable insight into my flesh and blood heart and soul- placed him in my book of angels on earth. Only he and I really knew just what his dying days meant to my wayward young man - whom he'd entrusted to carry his body to his final resting place, laid ever so gently - you guessed it - on the back of his pickup truck.
And this man, whom I once thought inarticulate and aloof, pulled a fast one even that day.... in the form of letters - individual love letters he'd laboriously dictated to his Hospice nurse and sealed until the time. He could not tell us how he felt so he'd written it down. As she stood to open the envelopes in the chapel - one by one - we all heard him speak. The big and burly man of few words and little education hovered ever so strongly above us. The power of well-chosen eternity laced words that slayed me.
I have never heard a finer sermon delivered.
Nor one filled with more love.
Say what you need to say Say what you need to, Say what you need to... Say what you need to say.
Do yourself a favor and listen, please, to John Mayer's "Say." It was the inspiration last night for me to finally put this story into words.
"Say" lyrics John Mayer
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