Thursday, September 6, 2007
The Friendly Giant
Jim is gone. He's not coming back and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it. There will be no more, no seconds, no matter how nicely we ask. All we can do is look back, because the present is simply too sad.
Jim was among the first adults to speak to me as an equal, as if I too, were an adult. There are about five people in my life who offered me this respect while I was growing up, and each of them I still try to emulate to this day. He listened to me as if I was the very first to speak the adenoidal platitudes of a teen aged boy. He laughed with me, not at me, though often at his own jokes. He swore not freely like a child, but carefully and with precision. He showed me that just because you took life seriously, you did not necessarily have to be serious. He taught me that everyone deserves to be heard, and that everyone is interesting if you listen carefully enough.
It would be hard to describe Jim as an athlete. It was only due to pure luck that he didn't fall down the stairs more often than he did. But by no means did his lanky frame and disobedient limbs prevent him from competing, he simply had to do it in his own way. It's infinitely easier to win at tennis, for instance, if you only play with children. And thrash me he did! Until I turned thirteen, of course.
But over those years, he taught me that telling me how badly he was going to beat me was much better than actually beating me. In fact, since his racket mysteriously went missing a few years ago, his play was sublimely reduced to a simple essence of trash talk. Our "annual" game was since replaced by a brace of Bloody Mary's on the veranda where he would outline all the improvements he had made to his serve the previous winter and what it would mean to me and my (not-so) imminent humiliation.
When I think on this, and all the other jokes we shared, well, wow, it is hard not to feel like I was smiled upon with very special favour. But in reality, I suspect that each of his nieces and nephews thought that *they* were quietly his favorite; that he was particularly mirthful with them; that he sought them out in a crowd because they were the most fun; that he understood them for what they really were; that he was just faking being an adult.
Which, he might have been. Faking. It was clear to anyone of us that he had undergone a marked change in outlook after he took his retirement. His jaw unclenched and his whole demeanor opened up. Others were invited into his world.
I believe I was in University when he hung up his wig (or whatever it is that lawyers hang up: pens? foolscap? it can't be cleats!). Young, ambitious, and aggressive, it didn't make much sense to me at the time. Here I was, doing anything to start a career, and there he was walking away! To help people! Inconceivably romantic. But as I grew older, and learned to hate my first job, I began to find that I hoped that one day I too would wake up, look around, and decide that I had all I needed; that I could contribute to my community in ways that far exceeded the reach of my checkbook.
The last time I saw Jim was a few weekends ago up at the lake (where else). We had brought Adrian over to the Wright dock so he could splash around in the shallows that had been cleared by Nancy and Dad and the great Mr. Mac so many years before. Mostly we just milled around while Adrian generally made a mess of the place. The conversation volleyed about in its typically lazy summertime way: how many more boats there are this year than others; what Nan and Dad used to do to leaches; whether the fish would eventually eat the discarded water slipper resting on the bottom of the lake off the end of the dock; why Jim's canoe was the fastest on the lake, a marvel.
When it came time to pack up the boy and take him home for some supper, I hoisted him up on my shoulders, where suddenly he was staring directly into Jim's eyes. (Jim was, it turned out, one-half an Adrian taller than me).
"So long Adrian! See you soon!" Jim bellowed, smiling wide and giving my six-toothed son a good view of his dental work.
Adrian shrunk into my my hair, tears welling up in his eyes. A small sniffle.
I swung him down and cradled him in my arms so that he was sitting facing outwards, "It's only Uncle Jim," I told the little guy, trying to smooth over the situation, "Jim!" I said.
Sniffle. A tiny moan and a furtive look for escape routes into the woods.
Jim raised his arms high above his head and waved them around, all elbows and freckles. His knuckles dragged through the clouds above and he laughed, "that's right! I am scary! Lookout for Uncle Jim!"
But that's the end of the story: finished in the middle. Adrian will never have a chance to think that he is Jim's favorite nephew. He will simply wonder: who is the laughing, bespectacled man towering over us in all the family photos?
"Papa? Tell me about the friendly giant again."
And I will.