He is 75, born and raised within 60 miles of the pot of French press that sits on the table between us. He’s the son of North Carolina sharecroppers whose huge smile and gregarious personality no doubt were two of his most powerful tools in his efforts to carve out a successful path as a black man here in the South.
You’ll never hear him complain about that struggle. At most, he’ll shrug and say “people just people, you know?”
Acceptance. Of things and people and circumstances. Add three more tools to that toolbox of his.
We get together every few weeks to share good coffee and even better conversation. He’s a laugh, a profound thought, and a quirky saying all rolled into one. Most of all, he is a voice. An ear. A piece of my soul.
Him: “Honestly, I don’t know how or why a couple of dudes like us, this friendship of ours. How is it a 75-year-old black man is hanging out with — how old you again? 50? — a white dude?” <laughing>
That’s the most that race will be a part of any discussion. It’s not relevant, but it also cannot be totally ignored. Not in the South, where some days, 2018 still seems to be desperately trying to shed its 1936 skin.
So I catch the glances from those sitting nearby. Glances he doesn’t seem to notice. Or care about. I tell myself the glances could be the way he throws his head back and tosses his arms in the air with a laugh that echoes throughout the restaurant. Or that the glances could be the way he finishes that story of his — when I drop my head on the table, then lift it again, saying “Are you freaking kidding me?” Only I don’t say freaking and I probably say it a little louder than it should be said in a coffee shop.
Or it could just be people being people.
Me: “I don’t know. The universe at work, I suppose.”
Him: “I do think you’re right about that. You’re my son’s age. I think this is my universe maybe giving me a chance to, I don’t know.”
About three years ago, his son put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
A few months later, his wife did the same thing.
He was out for his morning walk. Came walking back in the door. Whistling.
Him: “I don’t know, a guy just wonders is all. Could I have done more? Was I a good enough father? I mean my wife, she had some real serious issues. Did I tell you I’d finally found what I thought was a great therapist? Just that Monday before?”
Yeah, he’d told me that about a dozen times, but I still nod politely. I can recognize processing when I see it.
Me: “You know you can’t control any of that, remember?”
Him: “Yeah, I know. Still, it’s hard, brother. Hard.”
What we can and cannot control, and the peace that lies within. Hard.
But I don’t pretend to know anything about how hard suicide is. I do know this: when my mother was only 14, her mother told her to take her baby sister to the grocery and then handed her a list. When my mother walked back in the door, her mother lay dying on the floor. She had ingested rat poison. Horrifically — and successfully — killing herself.
I don’t know anything about any of that, but I know what that did to my mother. The booze, the mood swings, the rage. The walking past her bedroom door late at night, hearing the quiet sobbing. I don’t know where that all begins or ends; the mess is really too big to be sorted out by 9 year-olds. At 51, I can only forgive and accept. We all want to hold our mothers one more time.
Me: “But you’re doing the right things every day, right? You’re getting up, you’re making your bed. You’re going for your walks. Hey, you’re having coffee with friends!”
Him: “Yeah. <he shrugs> Finally moved the furniture in the living room around. Got rid of her chair.”
Me: “See? And you’re reading and writing and listening to music.”
Him: “Yeah. Oh!” <he reaches for his phone> “I wanna show you this song I found!”
He fumbles for his phone, squints at it, jabs at some buttons, grumbles under his breath — pretty much exactly as you’d might imagine him handling an electronic device that was born about 70 years after he was. “Why they call these things smart phones?” he grouses. “Ain’t nothing smart about it!”
So the conversation turns to electronic devices and Facebook. He hasn’t quite figured out Facebook, but he likes that it helps him keep in touch with his son’s two children back in Chicago. Then we’re on to the issues he had last week when he had to go to “the shop” and have the iPhone lady explain where to find his photos.
He eventually finds the song, closing his eyes and singing the lyrics softly. There’s dancing like nobody’s watching. This must be singing like nobody’s listening.
Me: “See, you’re taking care of yourself.”
He now seems a bit embarrassed to have been caught in the act. He laughs another huge laugh as he tosses his phone on the table and leans back to stretch. He comes back toward the table, shaking his head.
Him: “Yeah, maybe. But it’s the loneliness. Damn, that’s like a prison, man.”
Me: “Well, let’s be clear. There’s loneliness and there’s alone. Which is it?”
He continues looking at me, pondering the notion.
Me: “I mean, alone is fine. You’re alone. It’s definitely a major adjustment — you were married what, almost 50 years? Stay in touch with that, work to understand that, work to accept that. There’s no sense fighting that right now, right?
Me: “Where you gotta be careful, where we all gotta be careful, is when it starts to become loneliness. That’s the dangerous neighborhood in our heads, right? That’s when the pain or suffering or whatever we want to call it, that’s when we start to reach for the unhealthy things.”
Him: “Yeah, cake!”
Another big laugh.
Me: “Exactly! Cake. Or booze. Or work. Or our beds. Or women.”
Him: “Oh, brother, women. <shaking his head> Don’t I know that one, whoooo-eeeeee.”
Me: “Yeah, okay, we’ve talked about that. Live and learn, right? So now you’re aware, you’re watching yourself, your feelings, your pain, your motives. It’s all you can do, right? Besides, I think it’s pretty natural to seek comfort like that. You’re hurting — who wouldn’t want to find some lovely lady to go for walks with and make it all go away?”
Him: “Just gotta be careful.”
He’s repeating that one to me, knowingly, because we’ve discussed it dozens of times.
Me: “The same is true with processing your son. Feel it, let yourself feel it. If you wanna cry, cry. If you wanna scream, scream. If you wanna laugh, laugh. There’s no rules about any of this shit, right? You just gotta do your self-care, whatever that looks like. And if it all seems crazy or that it’s getting away from you, pick up the phone. Right?”
Him: “Right. It’s like this <pointing to me and then back to him>. I’m not sure, is this God giving me a second chance maybe, to have conversations with someone who is like a son to me? Conversations I maybe should have had with him? I don’t know. I don’t mean to be jumpin’ rabbits on you.”
He’s never explained jumpin’ rabbits, but I’ve managed to deduce it’s some kind of Southern saying for a conversation that strays a bit at times.
Me: “Does it matter? It doesn’t have to be defined. I could say the same, you know? I’ve been without a father for a decade now. I had five parents, not a single one is alive today. Who knows? I just know your friendship, this coffee, it speaks to me, my soul.”
Him: “Oh, don’t it?!”
That was almost a year ago.
Then my life became the one that seemed to have all the questions.
Next thing I know, I was waking up on Christmas morning to the empty, beige walls of an apartment. More than 20 years of traditions and laughter and even arguing over who might have burned the bacon, poof!
It happens. And I know why it happens. And I’ve been managing what happens when that happens: Reaching out to friends and family. Journaling. Rilke. The gym. Yoga. Not ignoring the calls of people who love me. Feeling it.
If you wanna cry, cry.
If you wanna scream, scream.
If you wanna laugh, laugh.
Ping! Another one of those thoughtful texts from a lifelong friend reaching out.
Them: “Anything thing xciting tonite?”
Me: “Does standing at the salad bar at Whole Foods wiping away tears count as exciting?”
I chuckle. They get me. And I get them. They’re one of those champions of mine that the book talks about. They understand that over the past couple of weeks, loneliness knocked on my door. I answered. I let it come in. I let it pull up a chair. I let it sit down.
So there were the tears at the salad bar. The tears in the coffee shop. The tears sitting at red lights. And the sobs that echo throughout empty apartments on cold, dark January nights. All so random, the brilliant flashes of memories that must feel like soldiers and their wars. The comfort of our fox holes. The pain of our shrapnel. The bonding over our small wins as parents; the intimacy of sharing in the big ones as lovers.
Them: “Hang in there. It’s a severing no matter how u phrase it. There’s no way under, around, over, or avoiding it. The only path is thru. U can do this. Your friends will help. just keep moving forward. let life happen to u. life is always in the right.”
Life is always in the right.
So I went to hot yoga.
I breathed. I stretched. I sweated.
Then I picked up the phone.
Him: <no doubt looking down at his phone and seeing my name> “Well, well, well, I hope you ain’t callin’ for no bail money!”
Then the laugh.
Me: <laughing> “No, not this time. But I like the way you think!”
Him: “How you doin’, brother!”
Now there’s a question.
Me: “Oh, yeah, well, it’s been how long since we talked?”
Him: “Too long!”
Me: “Well, that should tell you how I’m doing.”
Him: “Alright, yes, okay. I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means though. You good?”
Me: “I’m okay. Could be better. Just not workin’ it some days.”
Him: “Hey! That’s okay! So you’re aware.”
He’s proud of repeating that one back to me, so he says it with added emphasis. Then it’s the laugh.
Me: “Yeah, I’m aware. Am I ever aware.”
Him: “Right on!”
Me: “How are you?”
Him: “Oh, pretty good. Pretty good!”
Me: “That’s good to hear. Hey, when you get a chance, look at your calendar.”
Him: “Oh, yes! Let me get home from running around this morning and get back with you this afternoon.”
Me: “Awesome. Thank you. Coffee’s on me.”
Him: “Nooooooo. Nope. You got it last time, brother. It’s my turn.”
Me: “Okay, fair enough. You buy the coffee. I’ll jump the rabbits.”
“…if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall.” —Rilke