The first time I met the older gentleman, he had seen at least seventy-five summers, maybe eighty, although I did not know it at the time. And he was a gentleman, in the truest sense. In a new place where most everyone was friendly anyway, Mister Clark stood out. I would come to realize later that he was one of those people who never met a stranger. And he would always find something good in everyone. Bring up any person, and there might have been ninety-nine bad things one could have said about this person, and only one tiny redeeming characteristic. But you can bet that was the one thing he would always point out. The good. And never the bad.
He loved talking to people and he could tell the best stories, in the way that only someone who has lived a long time can. He loved to talk about his great-grandchildren. He loved his wife. Like my mother's mother, his wife never learned to drive, which wasn't uncommon in their time. In his later years, he had gotten to where he could not see real well. But with her helping him see, and him driving, they still got around, slow though it may have been.
He grew up with my mother's family, working from dawn until dusk in cotton fields, and later in factories. I would come to learn that the house he lived in was next door to the house my grandparents had lived in when my grandpa was still alive. My grandpa died when I was three, but I remember being very young and whenever I would walk into the house, he would swat me with a fly-swatter. I remember there being chickens in the yard, and cotton fields behind the house that seemed to go on forever. And there was a plum tree, and as a kid I always felt like finding fruit growing somewhere was the best thing ever. Apples, plums, grapes, blackberries. Eating them felt like I was doing something I shouldn't have been doing.
Anyway, Mister Clark knew my grandfather and most of my older uncles better than I did. And once he knew who I was, many of his stories would refer back to them. And I loved to listen to those stories. They were different stories than what my mother had told me, probably because she came along later. They were things I had never heard, and I lapped them up like a starving man eating a bowl of homemade soup. And he never failed to say something like your uncle so-and-so was a good ol' feller, when referring to one of them.
After eighty-some-odd years of living, Mister Clark developed cancer. There were good days and bad and then I did not see him for a long time and I knew it must have gotten worse. So I stopped by one day. He had come home for good. I went into the bedroom to see him. It was bad. The tumor was protruding from his stomach. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen. Clearly, it was just a matter of time. But he still knew me. His mind was good. He still had a sense of humor. I think he even talked of getting back to his old self again. Less than a week after I went to see him, he was gone. His son had been there when I stopped by once. He had taken me aside and told me that Mister Clark had asked that I be a pallbearer at his funeral. I had only known him three or four years. It was an honor.
At the funeral, I remember looking around at all the people and thinking how much he would have loved to have been there. He loved people and he would have had a ball talking to so many friends and family members, some of whom I imagined he had not seen in months or years. I remember thinking he would have much preferred them to have stopped by a month or a year before just to talk. But I suppose that goes for me, too. I never stopped by to see him until he got sick. Why must I keep learning this same lesson over and over?
I missed his stories. I still do. Having lost both of my grandfathers before I was four, maybe I looked at him as filling that role, at least in part. I went by to visit his wife one day not long after he passed. We had never talked a whole lot, just standard greetings, hellos and how-are-yous. And occasionally she would have to help him remember some part of some story he was telling me. I think part of me thought that I would be able to still see part of him thru her. Maybe selfishly I hoped she would be able to tell me more stories of my family and it would be like he was not completely gone. But she didn't. Maybe she couldn't.
When two people truly become one, and one of them dies, that really only leaves half a person. And sitting there talking to her that day, I saw very clearly that half of her was gone.
"Today I braved the graveyard rain, and placed a rose between their names. That's the most that ever came, between the two of them..."