Thursday, November 07, 2019

Ed and The Birthday

He arrived at the baggage claim carousel. I suspect that I recognized him first – I’d aged more visibly than he had in the years since we’d last seen each other. He was, as I am, frailer than when we’d first met in 1973 or 4, but his unmistakable smile and manner erased all of that. We chatted and he remarked that his daughter in-law had tied a ribbon to the suitcase to differentiate it from the mostly other black bags passing by. I spotted it, and he nodded. Picking it up, we made our way up and down the necessary levels to cross to the parking lot. Nearing the hotel, Ed’s phone rang. We had taken the wrong case. Turning around, his phone rang two more times nervously asking where we were before we were able to return to the airport. Reaching the rendezvous, I exchanged someone else’s bag with Ed’s, sporting the correct ribbon. I mouthed “He’s 93” to the nodding airline employee, realizing of course that I had been the one ‘helping’ to get the bag. Ed, whose eyesight I quickly learned was not 20/20, had borrowed the suitcase from his son, whose nametag was attached. The airline had called him to get Ed’s number. . . we were once again partners in the pettiest of crimes to the chagrin of at least one family member. The adventure had begun.
 Ed had flown into town to attend a birthday party for a friend – a 95-year old friend whom he’d known since 1954. Their families had shared churches, births, vacations and more, longer than I’ve been alive. I had readily agreed to assist him – to be his chauffer for the weekend, not fully realizing the depth of that commitment. While it turned out to be a bit more than I’d bargained for, the result was a series of time spent and a depth of conversation that rarely happens in this world. It was also with a singular person of experience and understanding that I was able to learn more about, which only made me appreciate him more.
Aside from being a devoted husband, father, and church member, Ed and Kathy had raised and taken in – I asked him this time – about 20 teenage and young men, sometimes temporarily, sometimes longer. I was just a slightly troubled preteen who Ed would take out occasionally for a coke and conversation in his VW bug. As I grew older and moved away, we kept in touch. Living several hours away, Ed would call me up every so often, or I would call him, and we would converse, always encouraging. As a retiree, he would sometimes just show up at the TV repair shop I worked at to take me to lunch, in town for some other reason.  A year or more would go by, but we shifted to email as well as phone calls, every now and then. It was and is a singular, consistent friendship with nothing but a shared interest in each other’s lives. I tried to support him from a distance as he cared for Kathy through Alzheimer’s for many years. I took a measure of pleasure in showing up unannounced at her funeral, surprising him for a change.
We talked of all of these things, catching up and filling in details and sharing pictures and stories, sometimes both of us unable to recall certain faces and names. We were together long enough to correct some of the lapses as a memory would eventually surface. We talked of church business, pastors, and changes. The time when, in Long Beach, an arsonist had burned 3 churches down. Ed volunteered himself and some male teens and young adults to take turns camping out in the church for a few weeks until, I think, the arsonist was caught. Typical Ed – innovative problem solver using a seemingly unsolvable problem with an opportunity to build relationships. He didn’t say that, but I recognized it for what it really was.
Sunday afternoon, he spoke of his childhood. “I didn’t like my father at all,” he said. “He used to beat me with a cat-o-nine tails with razor blades at the ends. I hated that man.  At dinner, I sat on one side, my sister on the other. If one of us said something wrong, he would just backhand us.” This and some more. I began to finally understand where this loving, compassionate, purposeful investor in so many lives had come from. I’d always wondered. There is, of course, more to the making of an individual, but I felt that I had found a ‘why’ for this man who had made these efforts for a lifetime.
In the truck on the way in from the airport, in the environment where we’d spent so much time together when I was a kid, I shared some very personal news with him that I was apprehensive about sharing with someone who was born in 1927. He listened to me, and his response was completely supportive. No advice, no ‘direction’, no platitudes.  On the way to the airport on Monday morning, we expressed our mutual happiness at our time together. He talked about my family and the realities that we face, and he said matter-of-factly, “It’s going to be alright.”
Earlier, He’d told me, with a gleam in his eye that, at the party, his friend, a renowned pastor, educator, author, and master of scripture, told him “I hope you live to be 100, and I get to bury you.” Friends.   That would be awesome.
I am a better man in so many ways because Ed has been my friend. We’ll keep in touch.