February 2, 2023
“I love that story of Papa,” I answered my mother’s pause.
“I know you’ve heard it a million times, but I keep thinking of him. I miss him so much.”
“I know, Mama. I know. I do too.”
The room quieted briefly before she looked to me with those piercingly honest, dark eyes.
“Tell me a story,” she asked.
Her request startled me as I had never before heard her ask for stories.
“Well, actually, Mum, I do have one. I don’t even have to make one up!”
I giggled softly as she rolled her eyes in response. We mocked each other with the familiarity and reverence to being mother and daughter. So many decades of life reinforced the necessity to make fun of the less than civil moments that had passed between us.
I am unsure when I first met him. In my mind, I always referred to him as “the sheepdog.” My habit of animalizing people – especially men – ended many years ago, but I still remember the associations I had created. I had never talked about him or shared these stories much less my strange habit of animalizing.
(Even that word sounds a bit more exotic than is meant.)
“I know what you mean,” my mother seemed to answer my thoughts. I had not realized I had been speaking aloud.
But to me, the sheepdog was a sheepdog. He truly was! With the holiday season now just behind me, I realized how much I had thought of him. As I shopped around town, I caught myself still looking for him.
In spring 2022 he passed away. Without fanfare and advertisement, he left the world. He died much as he lived, with loyalty to his own definitions.
I had only known of his death when a flippant comment was made in a conversation. The news made me feel as though I had been turned flat, then stampeded upon. I could not breathe.
But it was a conversation with someone whom I needed to remain relatively straight-faced. I did not trust the person with my feelings at least not with the depth I felt them. What puzzled me, was the person knew me well enough to know the impact of such news. Yet, he kept talking.
And I kept silent. Nodding, agreeing and trying not to shake, I was amazed that he kept talking.
I felt as though the world had lost one of its honest angels. No emotion of mine could honor such a loss.
I thanked the communicator for the news. I did not cry until I drove away in my Jeep.
“That is how you found out?” my mother asked.
I nodded. I had become a bit choked up as I retold the story.
“Did you ever meet him?”
“I think so. I think your father and I met him at one of your parties. Just briefly we were introduced.”
Our paths had intersected many times over the years. The older I get the more pleased I become at that woven tapestry quality of life. My son and ex-husband would comment their astonishment at how many times we would be vacationing only to run across an old friend of mine.
Or in one famous family incident, while parking the family truck at a grocery store on vacation, I placed the vehicle nose to nose with the automobile of a long lost uncle!
Imagine his surprise when I stepped out of the truck saying, “Uncle Johnny?”
Now some relatives might run from each other but he was not like that. Nor did I wish photos or a rekindling of family get togethers. Nothing of that sort. It was just nice knowing he was alive and we could share a few words of kindness.
Then we wished each other well.
“I cannot believe you did that!” My mother stated without the surprise of emotion her words begged for.
“Was he ok?”
“Yes, Mama. He was fine. He looked like the same ol’ Uncle Johnny.”
“And he was nice too. He liked meeting my son too.”
My mother and I spent the next hour spiraling into that abyss of family gossip surrounding my long lost uncle.
She yawned to complete her stories.
“So you need some water?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” she added in a softening voice. “I messed your story. You have other things to do.”
“No, Mama. Not at all. We have time and we haven’t messed up anything,” I reassured her. “Here. I got us both waters.”
“Good for us.”
We both smiled, then sipped at the ice cold well water. At moments like this, with water in hand, I seriously give a prayer at the thought of clean water. Just a pause, but my mind thinks of forty feet below the house a vein of pure water runs.
I shut my eyes in a moment of gratitude prayer. “Water. Easy, wonderful water.“
Back to the Sheepdog.
Twice in the year before he passed away the sheepdog came to visit me. The last time I had been working at the store. I had not seen him for months and never really thought about him being at the store.
As I cut through the aisles, saying hello to people, I turned to say hello to a gentleman standing between side aisles.
“Hello,” I stated with a smile but I never broke my stride.
“Hey!” He called out with his arms opening, palms to me.
I looked back as I had already advanced maybe ten feet before my brain registered the familiarity of his voice.
“Finn?” I could not believe my eyes. “Finn!”
“Hey,” he kept his arms out, palms to me. His face was poised in mocking disdain at my delay in recognition.
I laughed then rushed to him. “Oh my goodness,” I chirped as I planted a kiss right on his cheek.
I tapped his shoulders with both hands as if i needed to test that he was real.
Tears of joy then, as tears of remembrance now. We chatted. We did not invite each other to coffee or dinner or anything later on. We just caught up again, with life. He had purchased something from our hardware section.
Looking at him, a person might guess at him as a person. Might not. Dressed in a Carrhart jacket with jeans and a flannel shirt and his once blond hair now grayed with a face full of whiskers, you might not have pictured him in suits and ties.
You might not have guessed at the fine mind and unparalleled ethical standards which were protected by sharp mannerisms.
“Sword-like,” I paused.
I can still picture him standing at the corner of two store aisles amid countless shoppers. We laughed as we told each other little anecdotes. I laughed at his stories and he laughed at my laughing noises. As he carried on with infiltrating drama and gestures, I laughed harder.
He always seemed to analyze the fact I thought he was funny. Kind. And disturbingly true and truthful in the most wonderful ways.
We both needed to move forward with our day. “I come in here quite often,” he said. Wrapping up our chat seemed awkward but we were light with each other. Finn was probably the only other person who would share platitudes gratefully.
“It was about nothing,” I answered my mothers looks. “Yet it turned out to be everything.
“See ya,” Finn stated flatly.
I kissed his cheek again. “Yep, see ya!”
In the years we were friends, seeing other daily, I had never kissed his cheek. (Well actually I could have once.) Admittedly, as a young woman I had chased him a bit. And he had too.
We were friends like friends across time with cloaks of experiences which would both draw us in and separate us too. But I loved him. I loved him enough to let him be. I loved him to let him know I did. And I made him smile.
I always imagined him stopping again but if he did I never knew it. Months later I learned his visit was less than a month before he passed away. He had known of his illness and that it would soon take his life.
I find it difficult today knowing he is not living. But I had not actively thought of him until the holidays. As I shopped my head retraced the years.
In December, I placed an order at the local butcher shop. The shop smells like smokehouse heaven the minute you enter the door. I am not a huge meat lover but this butcher shop definitely makes me a believer in occasional wonderful cuts of beef. The prime rib roast is perfectly cut. The ground beef is fresh. The sausages are diverse and flavorful.
Ten of us stood, waiting for our turn to both pick up our holiday orders and to pick up extras that our noses told us we should have.
The door opened. I looked. I checked the gentleman who stood next to me. Finn and I would run across each other in places such as this. My mind searched for him unexpectedly.
“I will take two rings of mettwurst, please. Um maybe two packages of jalapeño beef snack sticks.”
The butchers bustled filling orders and offering cooking and seasoning advice while customers chatted. Zigzagging across the counter, the banter would fly. When a person left they always offered help to carry purchases, then wished a loud, “Merry Christmas.”
My imagination caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought of Finn in a while. After the butcher shop, I felt him near me throughout the holidays.
“He has no close family or friends here anymore, does he?” my mother added in. Her voice was a welcome break to the intensity of the memory. I snapped away from the recollection.
“No, not that I know of, at least. I think Alan’s wife is still alive but she might have moved to be near her son.”
Alan had been a close friend of Finn’s. I counted myself lucky to have known them both. Throughout the years I would hear stories of their wild teenage years. They had met somewhere in their early high school ages, then proceeded to weather the tumultuous seventies with the Vietnam War draft, college and personal tragedies. They had bonded in the best kind of male friendship with honesty, respect and humor.
But those stories I shall never tell. They were not mine. Mine are of distant stories not the retelling of a lifetime which touched mine.
As I opened the bookstore door, the chimes ringed into the sound of excited chatter. Customers looking for recommendations of reading for vacation time and for gift suggestions, created the warm buzz of voices and booted footsteps. It smelled only of paper, no spices nor any coffee or tea, just the happy smell of aisles of paperbacks, supplies and hardcover novels.
I lost myself in aisle after aisle. In the furthest corner of the shop, a noise struck me or so I thought. I don’t know why I turned around so sharply but my eyes met no one. Oddly, I smiled at the realization I still expected to see Finn. My mind rested on the memory of his laugh and an understated ‘Hey’ which he would make certain I would hear.
A part of my holidays was spent marveling at how we had run into each other. With certain sounds of the bookstore and the butcher shop, I found myself turning to look in their direction. As my shopping continued, I kept looking only to remind myself that he was gone. In strange shops and on mainstreet, I could hear a pointed comment and his laughter as I would snap my head, ready to pounce.
“Hey. You know…” he would have continue in a conversation we had shared years ago. Updated of course with recent politics or new scientific discoveries.
I found it difficult to reallly believe I would never see him again. The shock of the timing of his last visit remained with me.
Oddly though, the memories of him kept me company. Not like an angel’s guidance but the residue of his essence seemed etched within my senses.
I can still hear his voice and the intensity of his wit.
I am so grateful beyond grateful that I had the presence of mind to kiss his cheek as he left.
“I still cry and smile at the memory of him.”
“Mum, maybe that is why I feel like attacking my goals. His was an ethical compass like no other. Downright nasty. But it doesn’t mean he was wrong. Kind of why people did not take to him all the time. Kindhearted? Yes. Ethical? Oh my, yes. And incredibly private.”
But I hope I never stop looking for him at the door of the butcher shop during Christmas time.
“Finn..” I wiped my tears as I looked to the flames in the fireplace. The world still spun. Automobiles still existed. Well water was still fresh. And there existed a peace within the mad randomness of existence.
“Well, mama, I have gone on more than I intended.”
Somewhere in the midst of my stories she had fallen asleep. She peacefully breathed as I watched and prayed a bit in gratitude for our closeness.
Once more, I felt surrounded.
With love, from all that I am, to you,
The Brick Dandelion