Monday, May 31, 2010

The best antidote to death is kids

I'm sitting at my parents' house in St. Louis as I write this.  I'm in the living room where I grew up, with its familiar green carpet and the framed photograph of Uncle "Lips" on the mantle.  It's not actually my great-great uncle, just someone who resembled him, according to my great-grandmother.

Somewhere else in the house are the backpacks my father and I took to Philmont Scout Ranch in 1992.  Mine is electric blue and black with a cool internal frame.  The packs have sat in the basement corner quietly for almost twenty years without me thinking about them, but I thought about them this weekend.

The reason I did was because one of the dads who hiked in my group died last week.  I found out about it when I arrived in town late last Friday evening.

It started because it turned out the shop wouldn't be working today.  So I quickly decided to take the weekend to visit the family in eastern Missouri.  I arrived late after playing the UMKC medical commencement until 6.  My youngest brother was here, holding the fort.  Mom and dad arrived later after having been out with another couple for wine and cheese.

Something that had occurred to me just the day before was that a friend of mine from high school who seemed to spend most of her time globe-trotting with her husband had seemed ... conspicuously husband-less in recent months.  I asked my mother if they'd gotten a divorce.  "Yes," she nodded solemnly.  My brother chimed in with, "In other unfortunate news, Mr. S. died."

I sat up on the couch and looked to my mom for confirmation.  He had indeed died on Thursday.  I started asking, "Was he ill?" but I stopped myself in mid-sentence and barked out a laugh.  Mr. S. was always ill.  He had a steeper health slope than almost anyone I know.  I first learned about it when I was camping with him in the mountains of New Mexico.

He was seriously allergic to onions.  I hadn't realized how many foods contain onions or parts of onions until he made me aware of how many things would cause him serious problems.  Onion powder seems to be in a huge swath of foodstuffs -- from some soy sauces to soups to crackers to barbeque sauces to even some cheeses and dairy products.  He was also deathly allergic to bee stings, so he carried around an "epi pen" -- a hypodermic system for administering the steroid epinephrine to prevent his lungs from asphyxiating him if he gets stung.  He had terrible knees, so that at the time we hiked a hundred miles through the mountains, he had no cartilage in one (or maybe both) of his knees.  Bone on bone: what could be nicer!

Eventually, his doctor convinced him to get an artificial knee.  And it turned out he was allergic to some component of it -- it took months to heal and caused continual pain thereafter.  The no-cartilage knee became his "good" one. Pah!

And for all that, he was a good man.  He raised a good and loving family.  He was quick like a whip to humor.  He was usually in good spirits in public, never bothering to complain to all hearers.  He stopped in several times while I was working at the local St. Louis Bread Company, and we'd chat while his sandwich was prepared -- about my music, about his kids, about his search for jobs.

He was an excellent man, who sacrificed a great deal of his own promise to provide for his family when he was younger and he did it again when he was older.  If anything, he was too stubborn.  If his doctor said not to put weight on his knees for a week, Mr. S would walk to the car in the parking lot.  He just couldn't stand to be told that he couldn't do something.

It is a misfortune that he's gone.

--- --- ---

On Saturday, I drove to visit old friends.  They've got two younger children and it was a great relief.  The kids were boiling over with energy, moving in one hundred-fifty directions at once.  So vital a visit, in both senses of "vital". 

It's also fun to become a superhero for a few hours.  I lift a bicycle down from a rack and have children in awed appreciation of my strength.  I talk facts about the atmosphere and a sunset and children are eager to know how I know "everything". 

And yet, every time the four-year-old asked me to count beads or strawberry pieces, I couldn't even count to 10 properly.  I needed her help to get me on track.  And the chess game against the ten-year-old was a close race, unwilling as I was to roll over for him.  Not to mention how he bested me in H-O-R-S-E!

And it's nice to be appreciated so much that the kids become lawyers to try and trick me, twisting my words to get me to spend the night just so I can be there in the morning to share the blueberry cereal with them.  That kind of unrestrained love is really humbling.

And it was just what I needed to balance out the weekend equation.

1 comment:

  1. Yesterday a boy died from our church. He was just the best kid. Respectful, well liked, funny, and kind to anyone. He just fell off the golf cart being a kid and knocked his head and died. His mother is beside herself. Her aunt just died a week ago. Her mother died a month ago. 6 months ago he other son fell off a boat and has never been found. Now her baby is gone too. I am secure enough in my faith in God and my idea of death and it's presence- but my husband is a mess. This should not happen to a kid. I'm sorry that your friend died.