Wednesday, September 25, 2019

To Jack

Did you ever write a thank you note that you knew was never going to be read?

I'm terrible with thank-yous.  So many people are so kind.  Calvin invites me to California to take part in the trade show there.  Michael and Margie Tucker offer me a job in books back before 911 had its tragic resonance.  Family and friends in Greece give us a place to lay our heads when we visit.

Do I actually thank any of them?  Send them a quick note?  We're so beholden to email and Twitter and Facebook, but that's cheating, isn't it?  A dashed-off, electronic, less-than-280-character line doesn't hold the magic of a handwritten note, tucked into its envelope, with a forever stamp affixed in the upper right corner.

And yet, I don't do them.  I'm busy.  I don't have your address.  I don't have the time.

The time to acknowledge kindness?  Why should that ever be wanting?

So Jack, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry I didn't take the time to thank you for the sweet gift - the gracious gift - of Godric, that wonderful, epiphanic novel by Frederick Buechner.  Buechner who was better than Robert Graves but forgotten now.

Time really can be merciless.  Some times there's never enough - some times, like this time, there's too much, and we forget.  We forget.




What could have been more thoughtful than giving me a book, that book, over drinks?  Besides my family and friends, what am I most passionate about in the world?  So you hit it out of the park--

Why oh why did we never go to Pac Bell to watch our Giants?  To watch Bonds or Belt actually hit it out of the Park?  We were always going to make time.

Time is our greatest gift, but a parsimonious bastard, too.  Always hovering, parceling out pieces of itself in the tiniest increments.

We should have looked Time in the eye and said, The plans you have for me?  For us?  They need to include a ferry trip to the park to watch baseball.

But - we didn't.  Should have, but didn't.

Remember when we first met?  You hadn't retired yet, so you were still the pastor at First Presbyterian in Alameda.  There was a book event there at your beautiful, pillared church - I forget, now, who was the author?  Julia was there - does Julia remember?  I'll have to ask.  I don't know what you saw in me - but we hit it off.  You had come into the bookstore before that night - do I know a more passionate reader than you?  I don't think I do.

But after that event, you came in more often.  We'd talk, about books - about Joanne.  My god, Jack - but how you loved Joanne.  I'd talk about Karen, about my girls.  And then you were the one who proposed that we have a drink.  You were always doing that - going out of your way to make someone feel like they were special.  I demurred, I think I may have said that I couldn't possibly take up your time - your precious time, parsimonious time - and you said

We should spend time with people we want to.

You were like that.  Candid and sincere.  And kind.  Of course that combination was important in your ministry.  Did you shape your mission or did your mission shape you?  It of course was a combination, but I'd be willing to bet the kindness came first.

In our dealings, kindness always came first.

So we had that drink.  And I had a terrific time.  Without the constraints of the bookstore, we could just talk.  You about Joanne.  About Buechner.  Other books.  About your kids, and your grandkids.  Damn, you were proud of them all.  One drink became two, then three.



We promised there would be other drinks, and there were.  Most often at American Oak, at the bar, in front of that whiskey altar they have.  Sometimes Al would join us - and that was fabulous - so sometimes it was the two of us, sometimes the three.

Our last visit was just the two.  We went to the Prizefighter in Emeryville.  It was bittersweet, because it was going to be our last visit before I moved - but of course we knew there'd be other times, right?  I'd be back - and I would see you.  There would still be time to talk about our Giants, our Warriors, and all the books we'd read, had yet to read.

Near the end of our drinks - we had fixed the world by then, put it, by God, in its place - and after all that work, you said you had something for me.  That's when you pulled out Godric.  Of course you did.  A wonderful novel from a forgotten novelist about a 12th Century saint.  It was perfect.  And we clinked glasses and you gave me a hug and then, then?  You thanked me.

I said, Jack! I should be thanking you - I'm the one with the gift.  And you said

Thank you, Nick.

And there was so much emotion in your eyes.  So much.  How'd you do that?  Make the person you were talking to feel like there was no one else in the room, even if you both were in a crowded bar?

We were in the middle of packing at that time.  I had told the movers that I had a lot of books.  A few decades in the industry will do that, I said.  But they didn't listen.

Still, I was packing, so Godric was put in one of the boxes - one of the many boxes! - and so I didn't get to it.  Didn't read it, wasn't able to give you a call and talk about it, talk about that peddler and sailor who would sell all he had and focus on good and godly things.

But Godric was in a box.  Did I say, oh, Jack, did I say there were so many boxes?  The movers, when it came time to move, said - You have a lot of books.

I said that!  You weren't listening, I told them.  But I said just that.  Often.

After we moved, after we swapped Pacific for Atlantic, after we took everything and put it in a truck - the unpacking was slow.  So many boxes!  So many books!

Finally, this Spring, we tackled the bulk of what remained - all those books.  We bought so many bookcases for the basement.  Jack - you would love the basement, now full of books, and with its bar restored to its 1938 glory.  Oh, if you were here to share a pint, or a glass - I really think you'd love it.

But the bookcases weren't enough.  There are simply too many books.  So for one of the walls, with twelve feet of empty space, we hired a carpenter to build bookcases from the floor to the ceiling.  You'd like that, I think.  Hiring a carpenter to make room for the books. You like carpenters, of course - one in particular, one above all else.

Our carpenter came, and built, and we were able to get more books out of boxes, but still not enough.  Not enough room.  But, but!

I found Godric!  And so I'd be able to read Godric and we'd be able to have that chat - we'd talk about books, and Buechner, and maybe I could properly thank you.

It was that day that I went to Facebook - I had been a sporadic visitor because of all the political stupidity there - but that night I visited and there was a post from you.  Of course there was.  From Jack:

"Did you miss me? Notice my absence? For almost two weeks I have been preoccupied with some serious health problems and separated from my trusty MacBook Pro. It's too early to say more about details, but after a procedure next Monday (July 1) at Kaiser Oakland I will know more and be able to tell you more. Meanwhile, if you are the praying type, my family and I will appreciate your support. If not, kind thoughts and a generous spirit are always welcome. Much love to you all!"

That was right at the end of June.  Jack, that was just in June.  I hadn't written you a proper Thank You.  For everything.  And now this fresh hell? 

A few days later you posted your favorite picture of Joanne, beautiful Joanne - smiling and looking up.

The very next day, you posted words from Frederic Buechner himself.  


UNTHINKABLE
Dying and dissolution continue to strike fear in me. Death itself does not. Ten years ago if somebody had offered me a vigorous, healthy life that would never end, I would have said yes. Today I think I would say no. I love my life as much as I ever did and will cling on to it for as long as I can, but life without death has become as unthinkable to me as day without night or waking without sleep.
- Frederick Buechner, in A Room Called Remember


Jack, come on now, Jack,  What are you talking about?  There's still time, Jack.  There must still be more time.  I haven't read Godric yet.  Haven't sent you a thank you.  Haven't said - Jack, I am so lucky to have you in my life.  To have shared drinks with you.  To have broken bread.  I need to hear more about the house - is the house restored yet after that horrible fire?  Your beautiful Berkeley house that you shared with Joanne and raised your wonderful kids?  Tell me more about your sisters, Jack.  Tell me more.  Please.  Just a little more.

And then, then, barely three weeks after that first notice, there was this:



This is Sharon, Jack's daughter.
I know many of you have been wondering and waiting for an update.
My parents spent the last 13+ months living with my family while their home was rebuilt from the studs out - a small house fire caused such smoke damage we could only save the frame. In those 13 months my little family enjoyed a multi-generational household, and the love between and for all of us grew exponentially.
My dad's last month here on Earth was full of doctors and procedures and trips back and forth to the hospital, and we got some ideas of answers to some unanswered medical questions he (and we) had. His health declined substantially over the last several months and in the end his body was just too tired to regain its strength.
His big wish was to get back home and enjoy the deck in his backyard - to see the sun shine through the giant redwood and feel the Bay breeze on his face while relaxing in the sun. We were able to make that wish come true, and as he looked out at the gorgeous, and somewhat out of character for Berkeley in July, sunny summer sky, he raised his hands and said "It's soooo good!"
Jack chose his time carefully, ensuring that everyone else was also ready, and exhaled his goodbye at 3 am on Saturday morning, July 20, 2019.
My mother, brothers, I and our families miss him terribly already - his presence was big and his impact was even greater. We know you will feel his loss as well. Memorial details will be posted here - so keep your Facebook open, watch for a post, and Go Giants!
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
1 Peter 1:3



Jack.  Jack.  Oh, my sweet friend.

I never wrote you to thank you.  Why did I not make the time?  Why did I think there would always be time?

It was only today, Jack, just today that I opened Godric.  How had I missed your inscription?  I didn't see it that night at the bar because we were talking and drinking and saying goodbye.  And then it was packed away.

I never saw your inscription, Jack.  What were you thinking, Jack?  What were you thinking?



I don't know what to say.  I am the furthest thing from a saint that could possibly ever be.  My God, Jack.  So kind, even in death you are so kind.

You were my best reader, Jack.  You always read what I wrote and had something thoughtful to say.  All I had to do was write something here and you would have seen it.  Oh, Jack.  I'm sorry.

*      *      *

It's your birthday today.  I am thinking of you.  Like Joanne in that picture you posted, I am looking up.  I am thinking of you and looking up.  And I will toast you tonight, in the dark, at my bar, surrounded by the books I wanted to share with you, to discuss with you.

Happy birthday, Jack.  I miss you.

9 comments:

  1. It was an Advent reading for Red Hills Review. All spiritual readings. My daughter Mia did a dance. Natasha Miller played her violin. Michael --- he sang a capella. Lots of poems. Jack hosted. It was epic.

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    Replies
    1. Yes! Yes, that, exactly! I knew you would remember. Thank you, Julia. Thank you.

      It was, indeed, epic.

      Delete
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