Then, when this hit my mind, I started thumbing through yesterday's local paper. There was a story about about a gentleman that was the public address announcer for one of the local high schools for twenty-something years. He'd taken the job voluntarily when his sons started school there. He was 62 and out playing golf and had a heart attack. For this high school, it was Tech losing Al Ciraldo or Georgia losing Larry Munson (still the only thing I've ever like about the evil empire in Athens.) 62? That's 12 years from where I am right now! Hell, the flip-flops I'm wearing are probably more than 12 years old...12 years go by right quick! And 12 more years ain't NEAR enough time to build the life I want to build with the girl with the cutest dimples and sweetest smile.
And then I started thinking about the first time I experienced an unexplainable death. We found out my cousin Alan was sick when I was 16 years old. Until I got married, nobody on the planet knew me as well as Alan did (even if I was only 18 when he died.) I've never written much about him because it still hurts too bad. His is the only grave I ever go to and talk out loud.
"I cannot buy you happiness, I cannot buy you years. I cannot buy you happiness in place of all the tears. But I can buy for you a gravestone, to lay behind your head. Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they're no use to the dead."(Steve Noonan/Greg Copeland - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 1967)
The first vehicle I ever drove (even before I was old enough to drive) was his 1970-something big, black Silverardo. I now drive a big, black Ford F-150 with a lot more bells and whistles than his Silverardo had (he'd be shocked to know that I can answer my phone by pushing a button on my steering wheel!) When I do go and talk to his grave, I always try to irritate him with a little truck envy.
He taught me to love dogs, I think. When the world's most beautiful Irish Setter died he dug a hole big enough to bury a Volkswagen, crying the whole time. He'd be glad to know that since I ran into the kitchen for more coffee, scribbling notes for this blog on a piece of paper (and shedding a few tears myself) a Labrador Retriever followed me to find out what was wrong.
When I was a small child he called me "Monkey." Years after I was small child (when I was a teenager and he was pretty sick) I was talking to him in the part of the day he and I used to always find ourselves talking. The late hours of a summer day when the sun had gone down but the air's still hot and the lightning bugs and cicadas have come out to play. "Monkey, just because this has happened to me doesn't mean that bad things are out there, waiting to happen to you. Don't live scared..." I wish to God that teen-aged awkwardness hadn't kept me from saying something more meaningful than "Ok, I won't." I now know that those few words represent some of the greatest advice ever given me by anyone.
He'd be most disappointed if he knew that I STILL live very much afraid of many things. I rationalize it by saying "well, if he'd lived longer, he would've found out how scary life can get!" But somewhere, deep in my soul, I also know that he'd smack me upside the back of my head and throw me in Lake Lanier - "QUIT WHINING! LET'S GO SWIMMING!!" That's how I learned to swim, after all. (He'd also probably be disappointed to find that you can't discipline a knucklehead in the waters of Lake Lanier anymore without a soccer mom calling 9-1-1 from the cul-de-sac that now resides where our woods and our playground used to grow.)
I said all of that to say this - I was most confused by Alan's death and - at 50 years old - I'm still pretty confused. If we leave here for a much better place, whey does everyone get so sad when someone dies? I reckon it's because they're no longer here to help US figure out what's taking place in our very temporal neck of the woods. I don't much care if I never walk the "streets of gold." The only gold I've ever owned is the gold I purchased when I got married. I'd just like to think that when my time comes, I'll spend eternity pulling fish out of a lake with Alan and his father, my Uncle Ralph (who was more a father to me than my biological father.) And then, when the girl with the cutest dimples and the sweetest smile comes along later (you know, statistics show that's what will happen!) I can say "Come over here and meet Alan..."
And he'll grin... "You did good, Monkey."