Friday, October 14, 2016


It was nineteen eighty-six or -seven.  I had gone with Fave Aunt to watch my cousin's rec league basketball game.  He was 8 or 9.  I didn't know any of the other kids on the court, but one stood out. I gathered from the parents cheering around me that his name was Rusty.

Rusty's head was cocked to the side a bit, his shoulder slightly raised.  Sort of like if you were trying to hold a phone between your ear and shoulder to free up both hands, then backed it off about halfway.  It was obviously some sort of physical abnormality, one I had never seen.  But that was only part of what made him stand out.

While his condition made it almost impossible for him to shoot accurately, Rusty was a rebounding whiz!  It was pretty clear, at least to me, that he was trying twice as hard as anyone else. 

The game ended.  I don't recall who won or lost.  Yes, we had winners and losers in those days.  We kept score.  And miracle of miracles, it didn't kill me.  (Just do me a favor and don't yell "Loser!" in my vicinity, I still get a little sensitive.)  But there are three distinct memories I have of that day:  My late uncle coaching my cousin's team; thinking to myself that my cousin was definitely never going to attend Duke on a basketball scholarship; and Rusty.

Years scattered.  I didn't think about those things for a long while.  Rusty went to that place where certain memories are kept.  Ones you can't necessarily recall on command, but they're solidly there.  It simply takes some trigger -- a dream, a particular song, some conversation -- to bring them to mind, clear as the day you lived them.

Then some years ago, my sister was telling me a story.  She mentioned a Rusty.  The name was just uncommon enough that I thought it might be the same guy.  It was.

Rusty was the same age as my sister's husband.  They were friends.  He was a groomsman in their wedding.  But somehow he wound up talking more often to my sister.

You see, Rusty was one of those poor, misfortunate souls that we here in the state of Alabama refer to as "Auburn fans."  (We have other, more colorful names, but I'll save those for another day.)

My sister, of course, was raised as was I -- to love Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide.  She strayed away from the fold once, in her rebellious high school days.  Made Mom buy her a Michigan sweatshirt for Christmas the year Charles Woodson won the Heisman.  But she returned.  There was much rejoicing.  (See: "The Bible," Luke 15, Parable of the Ninety and Nine.)

Despite their opposite allegiances, Rusty would call my sister from time to time to talk football.  Because that is what we do in the South.  Before the games, at halftime of the games,  after the games, after the season, we talk about college football year-round. 

Rusty still lived with his parents.  My sister once told me his condition made him not want to go out much.  He didn't like crowds and preferred to only be around his closest few friends.  I liked to imagine that these conversations with my sister brought bits of brightness to his days.  Pure speculation on my part, the brain eager to fill in what it does not know.

As is so often the case, the news came out of the blue.  My sister calling to let me know Rusty had died.  He was thirty-six.

First, shock.  Then questions.  Eventually more speculation.

My sister said Rusty suffered from Crohn's disease.  He had been sick but had put off going to the doctor.  By the time they got him to the hospital it had been too late.  Was he afraid to go?  Maybe he was just sick of always going?  Did he not have insurance?  Maybe he had it but the deductible was so outrageous that he couldn't afford to go?  All valid questions in modern-day America, sadly.

The next day, someone shared a post from Rusty's sister on Facebook.  Heart-ripping.

There were only the two of them, him and her.  I know how that is, to have that one person who grew up exactly like you did.  In the same house, with the same parents.  The same blessings and disadvantages.  The same unspoken secrets.

I clicked over to Rusty's Facebook page.  Scrolling through the RIP's and "I'm gonna miss you's" I saw a message from my sister.  Tears began.

Further down, the posts became scarce.  Then, a handful of birthday wishes from earlier in the year.  I noticed the date.  Rusty and I shared the same birthday.  It seemed more than a coincidence somehow.  I knew I had to write something.

Sometimes, when you don't see someone often or haven't seen them for a long while, the image you have of them sort of becomes frozen in time.  I do it with famous people a lot.  When I hear a song from the 80's I still picture the singer or band looking as they did then.  I cringed a couple of weeks ago when I saw the promo for the new Matt LeBlanc show and all his gray hair.  In my mind, he's still sitting in Central Perk and it's twenty years ago.

I did the same thing with Rusty.  I thought of one long ago Saturday in nineteen eighty-something.  Of the rebounding whiz with his head cocked to the side, trying twice as hard as everyone else.  I reckon some have to try twice as hard their whole lives...

My sister said not many people showed up at the funeral.

And I remembered how Rusty never liked crowds.

"Remember him when he was still a proud man.  A vandal's smile, a baseball in his right hand.  Nothing but the blue sky in his eyes..."


  1. Be glad Fave Cousin didn't grow up to play for Duke. They're jerks :)

    Loved this post. Sadness and nostalgia, like only Bone can do. So glad to see you writing.

    1. Every time Duke loses a game, an angel gets its wings. Isn't that the saying?

  2. There is a tenderness here, even for an Alburn fan... I have a couple of facebook friends with birthdays this week who have died. It is always sad.

    Good to have you back posting.

    1. Good to be back. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Heartbreaking and wonderful.

    1. Thank you. Hopefully it was a bright spot in your week.

  4. I think we all know a Rusty in our lives.