Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dear Jeanie ...

Nineteen years. I simply cannot believe that it's been nineteen years since we were married.

I've never been so nervous in my life as I was that day at the church. You were my second chance to share my life and my love with someone, and I was scared to death. I shouldn't have been.

Then (and yes, that's a Mickey Mouse vest) ...
I used to think that I moved to North Carolina to get into NASCAR. Now, I understand that God moved me to North Carolina to someday find you, fall in love and then be a dad to Jesse and Adam. NASCAR's long gone now. You and the boys ... you're still here. I thank God for that every day.

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with you.

You showed up that afternoon on the doorstep of my apartment in Mooresville, ready to take care of me. It was then and there that I knew that you had my heart.

A bad case of food poisoning sent me home from work early that day, and when you found out, you headed to the grocery store for chicken soup, crackers, Sprite and all the other things people get for a person praying to the porcelain gods. I hadn't had that in a long, long time, and I loved you for it. I still do.

I can't imagine my life without you. I don't even want to think about it. Life before you seems like a bad dream -- it was a bad dream in a lot of ways.

We disagree on a lot of things, and they're important things, too. The spoons and forks go handle up in the dish washer, dang it. The couch in our den is brown, brown, brown and browner than brown. It could be none more brown.

... and now.
Not green, or any shade thereof. Thank goodness we agree on the all-important issue of toilet paper going over the top instead of down under, or who knows where our marriage might have wound up.

We've fought, but Lord knows I gave up actually trying to win a fight with you long ago. I'm a writer. I have to have time to compose my thoughts and you ... argue ... for ... a ... living. It's not fair.

There have been plenty of bad times. A miscarriage ... an adoption that fell through after the last minute ... the loss of my job with NASCAR ... your thyroid cancer ... the entire year of 2008 ...  but I can honestly say that out of every single one of those crushing disappointments has come a blessing beyond measure.

We've both talked about how the miscarriage and adoption led directly to Adam and Jesse. NASCAR shoving me out the back door meant time with you and the boys that I never would have taken for myself. 2008 ... well ... 2008 was just a bad, bad year all the way around. But we got through it, and we got through it together.

There's nobody I would rather have shared the last two decades of my life with. As completely opposite as our personalities might be, we're a pretty good match. We sometimes take different approaches to the same issue, but we almost always arrive at the same place at just about the same time.

Where do we go from here? I don't know, but I can only hope that the next nineteen years will be as good as the first nineteen years. God willing, I'll be here.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Broken Hearted

The only picture I have of myself and Gary Whitaker is out of an old church directory. There we are on the back row, behind the ladies, in a shot of the choir.

There are a lot of memories in that one snapshot. All those choir practices, me the new guy who'd never sung in front of people and completely ignorant about reading music. Gary would point to a note and raise his thumb or lower it, indicating that my voice should probably try to follow.

Gary Whitaker (back row left) and I.
On those many, many occasions when my warbling would wander off into some unknown dimension, Gary never fussed. He never made fun of me ... maybe he did once or twice, but it wasn't harsh criticism. We'd laugh about it and I'd try to follow along.

I tried to follow along with Gary in a lot of things. I was ordained as a deacon in our church in October 2003, and during the service, he leaned over and whispered something in my ear.

Don't ever let 'em get you down.

I didn't exactly know what he meant then, but I do now. I left the choir at one point, and while Gary never asked me why, I think he understood. I hope he did. He approached me one day after church and said that he had something he needed to say to me.

I figured something out about church a long time ago. When you go to church, you need to come in, worship with all of your heart and when the service is over, you need to just get the hell out of the building as soon as possible. 

I couldn't help but laugh. It was Gary's way of telling me not to worry about the stuff that sometimes goes on in a church and to focus on what really mattered. It was good advice. I've tried to follow it ever since, with varying degrees of success.

Less than a year ago, we had a fundraiser at church for my mission trip to Costa Rica. It was a success, raising every cent needed. Gary bought a bake-sale cake that night for $100. Later, he approached Jeanie and handed her an envelope. He told it wasn't for the cake -- he'd already paid for that -- but wanted for us to have this as well.

Don't look at it, now, he said. He told Jeanie he knew we'd be having various incidental expenses for the trip and this was to take care of some of those. Inside were ten $20 bills. I used the money to pay for my passport and photo and kept the change and receipts in the same envelope he'd given us.

Honestly, I'd meant to give him back the change and the receipts. I'd meant to, but never did. And  now ... I can't.

Gary died yesterday, the result of an accident while on a cruise with wife Susan and some buddies from their Honda Gold Wing club. I'm in shock, hurting from the kind of loss I haven't felt in a long time. It's nothing, of course, to the pain that Susan and their daughter Shelley are experiencing right now.

The thing to know about Gary is that he was a bearded bear of a man, the very essence of a good ol' country boy. I can't imagine what Heaven must be like tonight, with Gary singing in that rich, full voice of his.

I'm looking forward to hearing it again ...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pay It Forward

The gentleman sat on the back row of the small conference room, and as soon as I entered and saw him, he looked vaguely familiar.

I couldn't quite place the guy, but I knew I knew him. Then, I heard him speak. I'd heard that voice before, but still couldn't put my finger on when or where. It's a gentle voice, a slow Southern-tinged drawl. Maybe that was at least part of the problem. In North Carolina where I live, slow Southern drawls aren't exactly uncommon.

A couple of minutes passed, and he spoke again. I turned in my seat and quickly stole a glance at the name tag on his credential holder, hoping to somehow get this thing figured out. My heart almost stopped.

Gordon West.

I was instantly transported back twenty-one years or so in the past. Gordon and I were sitting in his office at Sparta First Baptist in North Carolina's beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and I'd just asked him for $20 in order to buy some groceries. More than two decades later, it's hard to suppress the emotions the memory conjures up.

I was working as the sports editor at The Alleghany News, a small weekly newspaper. The gig didn't pay much ... I was bringing home $150 a week. The "bedroom" in my tiny efficiency apartment was nothing more than a wide space in the hallway. I could lay on my box spring and mattress -- there was no room for a frame -- and place my feet flat on one wall and touch the other with my head.

Even then, I could barely afford the place. I got behind on rent, but when I got caught up, I always fell behind on another bill. The head of the local telephone company had a daughter who played basketball for Alleghany High School, and he gave me $10 off my phone bill every time her picture appeared in the paper.

So ... yeah ... Mary McMillan's picture wound up in The Alleghany News. A lot.

Still, my phone got shut off a time or two. So did the electricity. Paula Hampton, the office manager, allowed me to leave IOUs in petty cash. Co-worker Lynn Brooks invited me to eat with her family, knowing I didn't have much. You know you're on hard times when soup beans are the kind of blessing you remember two decades latter.

The Reynolds family ... James, Lib, Jamie and Amy ... we still laugh once in a while about the race Jamie and I attended on something far less than a shoestring budget. I was worried about the glowing red light on the gas gauge miles from home while Jamie fretted about being hungry. Momma Lib had pizza waiting on us when we finally made it back to Sparta, and it was the best pizza I'd ever eaten.

Ends never met, and more often than not, didn't even come close. That's ultimately what brought me in to speak with Gordon, the pastor at Sparta First Baptist. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. More than just financially broke, my spirit had also been broken. This wasn't supposed to be happening to me, not here. Not now. Not ever.

I felt like I had nowhere to turn and tried as best I could to explain my situation to Gordon. Although it was the most humbling thing I'd ever done in my life, he didn't try to send me to a benevolence committee. Instead, Gordon gave me the money out of his own pocket. Relieved, I headed straight for the local Food Lion and stretched that $20 bill as far as it could possibly go.

Thanks, Gordon. I'll pay it forward. I promise.
Not long afterward, Gordon took another pastorate and we lost all contact. I thought of him often over the years and tried searching for him on the Internet, but nothing ever turned up until he actually did, right there in front of me in that conference room.

As soon as the meeting ended, I stood up and turned to him. I stuck out my hand in greeting, not knowing exactly what to say.

Gordon, I don't know if you remember me, but I was a member of your church in Sparta about twenty years ago.

Clearly, he was having as hard a time placing me as I had him at first. I continued, still searching for the right words.

You helped me out and gave me $20 for groceries one time, and I just wanted to say thank you. 

The words caught in my throat. It was awkward standing there in front of him, admitting a long-ago weakness and getting as emotional as I seemed to be getting. He asked me my name and when I told him, my identity seemed to dawn on him. He smiled and asked how and what I was doing these days.

I told Gordon, who is now the senior pastor at Dudley Shoals Baptist Church in Granite Falls, North Carolina, about some of the books I've written and about speaking at the Life Lessons From Mayberry conference in Ridgecrest. I told him about Jeanie and the boys. I thanked him again.

Our reunion lasted maybe five minutes before the next session of the conference we were attending was scheduled to begin. Ever since that day, I've thought about the role Gordon played at such a critical crossroads in my life's journey. He was there for me at a time when I needed help the very, very most. So were James, Lib, Jamie, Amy, Paula and Lynn. It's left me with this question, and it's a big one.

How can I be a Gordon West for somebody else? 

I could've attempted to repay Gordon his $20, but I'm sure he wouldn't have taken it. That's not the kind of repayment he'd want. Gordon would want me to pay it forward, to give to someone else who needs a helping hand.

This isn't a New Year's resolution, either. Those tend to come and go, completely forgotten by the end of the first week in January. No. I'm going to figure out a way to give back, with interest.

That's my goal for 2015 and beyond. What's yours? How are you going to pay it forward?