About a dozen years older than us, he was our first post-college friend – and he was kin to my husband. With him, we spent days (and sometimes nights) exploring via 4WD pick-ups in the deep woods near Mt. St. Helens — during the times he lived with his friend (who lived nearish us) — while they both worked the I-5 corridor as ironworkers. When I first met the two fellas, tight-braided ponytails hung down their backs, heavy work boots clad their feet, and their beards were long and sometimes bushy enough to carry lunch; they both wore cinched down bandana doo-rags, usually beneath oilskin cowboy hats. Always – a beer in hand and smoke trailing off a cigarette. They were of the tough, yet tenderhearted breed of men.
Those early years out of college we bumped around in the back of one another’s pick-ups or trailed up and down and around the river and mountain. We strung tarps and stood beneath them when it rained on our campouts. And, he handed me my first cup of coffee in a shirt-wiped, tin mug. It was the best thing I ever tasted that cold, wet morning. He was all at once scrappy and honorable. One time he watched the trail while I climbed into the brush and peed.
When we bought our first horse, he gave my husband, his cousin, a saddle. A few months later, after a scary, scary emergency C-section, my son was born. My husband’s cousin showed up at the house one day to check on us and hold our baby. Then, some five years later when he helped us move into the first place of our relocation saga, he arrived before us and waited on his tailgate, with a beer and cigarette. After we unloaded the horses and the essentials for camping out until the moving company brought our household goods, he stayed on a couple extra days – because, it wasn’t fitting for me and my young son and one grandma (and our two dogs and a few horses) to stay in a new and strange place, alone, while my husband and father-in-law drove back across the state for the other horses.
My son was five at the time and both of them climbed the mountainside and cleared brush and mended fence and when the days were done, he told me that my son worked harder than any man on his crew. Then, we ate sandwiches, slurped soup, and munched chips as we sat on the floor – we used a blue and white cooler as a table. We watched Andy Griffith episodes on his laptop. He stepped outside to smoke, but came inside to puff his inhaler when his asthma needed tending.
I never had to explain or defend my opinions or doings with him. He accepted people, including me, as-is. He laughed loud, listened hard, talked smooth, and loved his people.
He worked his butt off whenever there was a need. He also knew how to relax around a campfire. He was confident and comfortable being himself. Western snap shirt, sleeves cut off or t-shirt, sleeves rolled neat, exposing sinewy biceps – he was always braided, trimmed, tucked, and tidy. Although he had a one-room schoolhouse in the deep, northern rurals of our state, most of the time he lived with friends or family or in a hotel – depending upon the location of his current jobsite. Between job assignments, or on weekends if his ironwork contract was close enough, he went home, rugged in the woods.
Yesterday I left the physical therapy office, got in the car with my son (now, eleven) and called my husband to see if he was off work yet – we might meet on the highway toward home. His voice caught. I asked. My husband got the call only seconds before mine rang through. He said his cousin had just died. I strangled out “no!” then I closed the phone and bawled. My son reached forward from the backseat and squeezed my shoulder. I lay my head on the steering wheel and cried until snot and tears and pain drained loose. I looked up – a truck had pulled in next to the passenger side. The driver man wore a ponytail down his back, a beard down his front, and a bandana doo-rag beneath a hat. The stranger bit his lip as he stared at me. He gave me a little wave and grimaced a sad sort of smile. I sucked air in hard – and in that moment I remembered all that I’ve just written. I turned off the ignition and climbed into the backseat and cried with my son.
I got home minutes after my husband. We stood between truck and car and talked about my physical therapy appointment and then he finished the chores. We didn’t want to talk about what we couldn’t put into words. But, when he came inside, we hugged and hugged and talked as we remembered the man we admired.
Like everyone else, I called the man “Slim.” He called me “ma’am” and I loved him to my deep downs.
Slim – Lord keep you as He comforts and strengthens your family and your friends. I’m so sorry I didn’t see you last summer at the graduation party a couple towns over. I was in agony with the flu. I regret not seeing you. But, I know you’d want none of that – just love and live your life, keep raising that boy up good, and know you’re fine just the way you are… that’s what you’d say.
In his honor, I think I’d do okay to smoke a cigarette and drink a beer. Then again, that’s not really me, and he’d know it. So, I’ll swig some coffee and drive into the woods.
Psalm 147: 3-5
He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.
Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.