I pull on my orange jacket and urge a reluctant dog out the door. The wind nips and the oak tree, clinging to its brown, dry leaves, rustles like an understated musician brushing at her drums. Ragged scraps of snow float to the ground.
The dog perks up. Are scents enhanced by cold and snow? Greta strains at the leash; now she is tugging me into a kind of sniff-and-tumble forage ahead. We skirt Sandy’s yard, loop up the big curved drive by the Helen Purcell home.
On the downslope, Greta pulls me off the pavement. She inches into the garden area where thick piles of leaves mulch the wintering perennials. She snouts around excitedly, upturning planks of leaves, exposing their darkened bottoms.
I let her go. It is Friday afternoon, Friday after a long and swirling week. Obligations have been met, and now the day’s ceiling opens up like the folding lids on a box–wide open to the sky and possibility. We can do anything we want. No need to hurry.
But even outrageous, exotic scents grow familiar, and small, aging dogs begin to feel the cold. We head to the house. I let Greta go at the stone front steps; she bounds around to the kitchen door and waits for me, grinning. I unhook her leash and we head in.
The kitchen smells like cinnamon; a small mound of snickerdoodles, edges just shy of burnt, just the way we like them, cools on the counter. Jim taps quietly on his keyboard in the family room. It’s an easy dinner tonight—packaged au jus; leftover beef, sliced thin to simmer in that dark sauce. Scalloped potatoes, made from a mix. Green beans.
I chop and mix and pour, getting things ready to cook. Then I make a cup of tea, move to the dining room table, and sit with my journal, pen in hand, staring out the window. It has been a week, a careening, charged time of meeting upon meeting, complex conversations rolling into each other, allowing no chance to absorb and reflect. The week was a tumbling, bubbling stew–a melange of things, all thrown in together; the simmering surface does not reveal the individual elements thumping around below.
But I remember, now,–now that I have a moment to reflect– the silver-haired man (silver hair like a lion’s mane) who got up to speak at Jim R’s funeral. It was after Jim’s three children had stood, bravely, fighting tears, to eulogize their father, to talk about his endless collection of classical music, and how they could never leave the house to go, say, to a restaurant until the entire side of a vinyl album had finished. About learning to make shelves and boxes in Jim’s basement woodshop to house those records and CD’s. About what he had taught them, and the teaching he shared with his more than 8,000 students. They went back to their seats, flanking their mother; they dipped their heads and they cried.
Jim was a lifelong learner, a scholar who was all but dissertated in history, a history teacher at the local high school. And after he retired, he came to teach at the community college. History was an elective, a course of choice in the one or two spaces where students could pick: one course from among the social sciences, say. Many chose history because someone told them it was the easiest, and then, they would encounter Mr. R. After that, they would usually opt to take the second half of American history, too, because he made them care so much.
“They don’t KNOW!” he would wail. “They don’t understand what happened or WHERE it happened! They don’t know why!”
And he wanted them to know, and he wanted them to care.
I would walk by the door of Jim R’s classroom on days when I badly needed a jolt of here’s why we are here doing what we’re doing. There he’d be, striding around the front of the class, pivoting, his hands flying, shaping balls of air into guns or bills or chains or victory. He would bend toward the students, with a laugh, with a groan, and the students would lean in to catch every single word.
And this was after the bad heart trouble, and after the belly surgery that left him so depleted. “If I have to quit teaching,” Jim said, a few years ago, “they may as well just carry me out of here.” For many students, Jim R, 72 years old, was not a history teacher or a grand storyteller so much as he was a transporter, holding open wide the door of a vivid time machine.
A month ago, he was teaching.
On Tuesday, we gathered at a little funeral home, filled to standing room capacity, to mourn him. And his friend stood up to share a tale.
He was also an educator, this friend, an administrator, I am guessing,– someone who shared a long chunk of career with Jim R. He talked about their passion for learning, and about other things they shared–love of hiking, of traveling; an inclination toward a good joke.
This man told us how he’d gone to see Jim at the hospital just two days before he died. Jim was sleeping deeply in his hospital bed, white as the sheets that covered him; his friend went and sat beside him. He took Jim’s hand.
“Jim,” he said, “I want to tell you what a wonderful friend you’ve been to me. And I hope I’ve been as good a friend to you.”
There was a moment. And then Jim squeezed his friend’s hand, and slowly his eyes opened. They shared a long look, the two old teachers, and then Jim, still squeezing his buddy’s hand, spoke.
“You’re getting fat,” he said. And fell back to sleep.
Oh, it was a good story, and oh, Jim’s friend told it well. We were all shocked into laughter. Driving back to Zanesville, I thought, “Jim taught us all a little something about friendship and humor, a teacher to the last.”
And I thought, too, that maybe he wasn’t above leaving his bud with a good story to tell at his funeral.
And now I realize it is 5:00; I slide the red porcelain casserole into the oven, put the green beans on the simmer burner, start the water on to boil to make the au jus. Greta jumps up and barks: Mark has pulled into the carport. She and James greet him at the door. He comes into the kitchen, rubbing hands together, cheeks red above his gray scarf and long black coat, and his eyes light up at the mound of cookies.
“Smells like cinnamon,” he says, and then Jim is pulling colorful Fiesta-ware from the cupboard, and the dog is jumping around my legs as I stir the beef into the bubbling juice, and Mark is telling us about a visitor he had, a funny encounter that happened. And he’s hanging up his coat, and we’re dishing up our food, and we’re toasting with our ice water: Let the weekend begin!
Warmth and good scents and steaming food: we relax into the meal and the conversation; we linger and enjoy.
I am swishing my hand in hot soapy water, agitating the suds to scrub the pans, when I think of the young man I met yesterday. I was on a field trip to a nearby village, going to explore a home-grown leadership program that was seeping its way into all kinds of the town’s corners. Into the high school, where it linked high-achieving students with developmentally delayed counterparts, creating new friendships and new ways of leading. Into the courts where young people with promise were funneled into, of all things, a leadership course. Imagine! Into Job and Family Services, where people struggling to turn their lives around got a chance to explore their leadership capacities, and to tussle with concepts like ethics and self-fulfillment.
Shelly, the dynamic force behind the program–its pilot light–told me that they’d applied for a grant for a leadership curriculum. And plummeted when they didn’t get it.
And then, when the initial shock wore off, they said, Well, we can’t afford to buy a program. We’ll just have to create our own.
She handed me a facilitator’s handbook and a participant’s guide, glossy and professional, and we paged through together. Then she took me out to meet her peeps.
It was the kind of place where everyone pitches in. So the program coordinator might also stop to get refreshments, and the executive admin teaches a module. The marketing crew make phone calls and know participants’ names and the names of their family members, and staff members take time to stop and talk with a visitor come to see their program.
One of Shelly’s colleagues is a young man whose hair–top of his head, lashes and brows,–is snow white. Three years ago, he told me, he was laying on his couch, turning his head away when his wife or daughters tried to interest him in what they were doing, in some exciting event. He had an auto-immune disease. His body was attacking itself, and the doctors had nothing to offer him. He turned his head away.
And then, somehow, he and his wife learned of a program in Chicago, and they gathered up their resources–no easy task for a young family–and they went. The medical innovators harvested stem cells from the patients, they brewed them into something injectable, and they re-implanted them in the patients’ bodies. And somehow, by some alchemical reaction, the infusion of stem cells changed the course of this young man’s disease.
It wasn’t, of course, as simple as my telling of the tale, and it took months of time away from home. But, he told me, he limped into the hospital, leaning on a walker. And he walked out, straight and tall, striding next to wife. His dark hair had turned stark white, but his health was back. And he was determined to work with people with disabilities. He found his place among the passionate professionals I visited.
My tea water is ready. Mark and Jim are in the family room, guffawing at Frasier and Niles’ antics. I bring my IPad to the table and sip my tea and ponder what to write.
Some weeks are just nuts. Obligation flows into obligation; there is little time to reflect or assimilate. It can be dangerous, that kind of week; I can miss the miracles that roll gently into my path. I need an interlude, a lull, and time to sort the treasure from the dross.
And I think of good Jim R, gone so quickly, missed so much, and of the eight or ten thousand students he sent out into whatever worlds they were forging, out with new knowledge and new passion and doors opened in their minds. Not doomed to repeat history; not those umpteen thousand.
I think of how he left us with a good story and a good laugh.
I think of the young man with the white hair, who took an incredible chance and regained his health and found his purpose.
I think of the families who love and support both those men, and of the lives they touch and have made better.
It takes a lull, sometimes, to be aware and mindful of the magic and the miracles among us. Those hectic days–they suck my attention; they only let me focus on the jabbering and the demanding: the right-here-right-now, got to get it done, tip of the iceberg. I need the lulls. I need the time to let the stories of wonder rise to the surface of my thought, and to remember the friendships and the decency, the loyalty and the openness, and the hope and possibilities, that always dwell among us.