December 16th, 2008

8 Days Of Happy: Day 5

I've written before about my best friend Shane who died suddenly in 2000. Yesterday, while waiting on D's parents to arrive for my birthday dinner, we went for a short walk along the riverwalk around the corner from the restaurant. It's directly behind the company headquarters for TSYS, where Shane worked until he died and where D started working before transferring to their Acquiring division. THe company financed part of the riverwalk construction there and part of it was engraving their employees' names in the brickwork of the walk. We walked to take a look at D's brick and to look for other familiar names when I found this one in the picture at left. I had no idea they had even done that.

It made me happy. I miss him terribly, but I accepted his death long ago and while I'll mourn his loss for the rest of my life, this came out of the blue and was significant for a very curious reason. Let me explain.

About a month or so before he died, SHane was looking at Hallmark cards in Target. One of them was a birthday card that reminded him of me and made him laugh out loud. It has the caricature of a man on the front and says "You da MAN!" You open it and it says "You da OLD Man!" He bought it for me and gave it to me in the beginning of summer, 2000. We were having our customary Sunday family dinner. This week it was at our house, and we alternated between our and Shane & Maggie's house. He explained that he found this card and had to give it to me now, he couldn't wait until my birthday which he knew was months away. I laughed as well, passed it around to everyone, and then put it in my box of special mementos and ephemera. He died on June 30th, 2000, just over a month after his 26th birthday.

I had come to see the approach of my 30th birthday as an omen of sorts, having been convinced for years that I would never live to be that old. To finally turn 30 was a big deal to me, and he knew it. I think that's why he gave me the card, because his death was completely accidental and he didn't know it was coming so soon. It was just like any other day, we'd spoken the night before about our plans for the following day to get together for our normal weekend of time together - and until I got the phone call at work in mid afternoon to come to the ER, it was just a beautiful summer day like any other.

On the morning of my 30th birthday, I was getting a sweater out of the top of my closet when the card fell into my hands from the shelf. I had not seen it since he gave it to me, and I couldn't remember taking it out of the box. It was the first birthday card I got that day and it came from him 6 months after he died. I sat with it clutched to my chest and sobbed until my head ached and the tears no longer came. Not simply because the grief was still relatively green and insurmountable, but because he took the care to make that happen - and I found it by accident on the morning of my 30th birthday.

Eight years later I came across this brick in the same accidental manner - once again on my birthday. I'm not sure what or if I believe in the energy we leave behind after death, but I'm sure I was meant to find these things when I found them, and in the ways I did. I'm happy that I got to share this tremendous love and respect with a man as good a friend and brother as Shane Stephens was to me. I'm grateful for every day I got to spend with him and for every evening we would sit in his backyard finishing the last of the beer or wine, laying on chaise lounges, looking at the stars and talking about everything and nothing. We were going to get older together and we were always going to be a family.

This isn't meant to be sad. I'm happy because I had in this man a kind of friend not many people come by even once in a lifetime, and I've been lucky enough to have this with several of you. It's extraordinary and the significance of all this is not lost on me at all. In fact, it is what keeps me warm most days. I had something so completely beautiful and was afforded the opportunity of it more than once, so while I mourn his loss, I take great care not to mourn it so much that I forget how wonderful my time with him was. I treasure that time too much to mourn the loss of it because I know fundamentally what having it means. It is a precious, fragile thing that sometimes is fleeting and you never know just how fleeting it really is, even when forged of the strongest of foundations. But it was real and I did have it, and it has made me a much better man.

He was a very funny and thoughtful man and therefore I will not rule out future surprises from him and will always keep my eyes and mind open for them. It was a good birthday anyway, but finding this made it a truly great birthday.

8 Days Of Happy: Day 6

My Grandparents, who along with my mother and my Aunt Kathleen and Papa Jack taught me how to make real, authentic, southern style home cookin'.

My Granddaddy had a one acre vegetable garden on his property in Villa Rica, GA this side of Carrollton. In the summertime it was a place of purest discovery. Mounds of cucumbers; rose red tomatoes pulling themselves from the stem cap and eager to break free of the vine, and tender greens that would go into countless salads. Glowing yellow summer squashes and bushes thick with fresh okra pods. Emerald bell peppers and almost crimson cayenne chilis. Row upon row of silver queen corn stalks filled with fat cobs - each laden with the sweetest kernels you've ever tasted. He taught me how to fry okra country-style by cutting the pods into 1" sections and dipping them briefly in buttermilk, then tossing them in a mixture of salt and pepper-seasoned cornmeal in a brown paper sack with the top folded over. Heat up the biggest cast iron skillet or Dutch oven you had available, heat some vegetable oil (and a little left over bacon fat if there is any left from breakfast) and saute the lightly breaded okra until it's nice and golden.

My Grandmother, who taught me the best way to fry chicken and roast potatoes, and how to appreciate the bounty of vegetables in summer as frozen casseroles put up for winter.

Aunt Kathleen, who taught me what a rare and amazing thing a green tomato can become when properly breaded, fried, and eaten while hot - long before Fannie Flagg ever wrote the novel that John Avnet would direct that would become the film that would end up being my favorite of all time.

Papa Jack, who made the best bread and butter pickles I've ever tasted and loved me like no man ever would or could. Who never called me by my name once in my life, instead always choosing to refer to me as 'Baby', and who made the most amazing Brunswick stew, Bocaditos, butter beans, and cornbread that has ever been made by anyone, anywhere, ever. Who also gave me both my first cup of coffee and my first cigarette, oh - and my first beer. Only he never knew about the cigarette or the beer, just so you know.

And of course, my Mama - who taught me to make home made, from-scratch biscuits and red gravy; chicken and dumplings and a perfectly roasted chicken; all manner of fruit cobblers and hot fudge cake; just to name a few. Who would ask me on trips to the grocery store if I could remember what all was in the recipe we saw on TV a few days before so I could help her compare the ingredients we needed against the things we had at home in the pantry. "Do you think you could help me make that when we get home, angel baby?" Always overjoyed with the proposition of time shared in the kitchen being creative with her, she'd scoop me up and hug me tightly to her chest as I replied "Yes, Mama!" Whenever she would congratulate me on a success she would clap loudly and applaud me and I would thank her with my much coveted and oft-sought out "Kiss Of Fire", which was performed by holding her cheeks in my plump little hands and planting a kiss on her lips that I would hold until one of us began laughing and the spell was broken. My kisses were always longer and more heartfelt than those of my siblings I reasoned because mine took longer - and because I held her face in my hands, I suppose. Plus, I was the only one who would sing songs by Olivia Newton-John and The Carpenters with her...

Don't you remember you told me you loved be baybyyyyyy, said you'd be comin' back this way again baybyyyyyy...
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