Every Tuesday for the past 15 years, a tall, (6'4") lean man walks into my kitchen and asks,"What you know good?" His nickname is "Bones". His Mama named him Reggie. He is as southern as they get, including the Rebel Flag in his front yard. But to him, that flag represented a symbol of southern pride, not the horrible racist rag it would one day come to symbolize to another generation. Reggie heads up the Kitchen Committee for my Senior Center, meaning he lets me think I am in charge. With a perpetual grin and a quick wit, you'd never suspect he turned 80 in August. He still rides a motorcycle for heavens sake. Someone ran a red light 3 years ago and tried to make him a hood ornament. Broke his collar bone but not his spirit. He may have shed a tear over the bike he loved, but he went out and got a new one. And STILL refused to wear a helmet. You'd think a man who was a Volunteer Fire Fighter for 40 years would be more safety conscious. But no, he like to feel the wind in "what little hair I have left."
If there was an award given for the ability to "Tease with Tongue Planted Firmly in Cheek", it would go to Reggie. I tease him that if he'd strap a coin changer to his belt, he could charge for those shoulder massages he offers to anyone willing to stand still. Stand still...they practically stand in line for his gentle, soothing touch. This Tuesday, however, will be different.
We buried him this afternoon.
It's still hard to think of Reggie in the past tense, as in "he was". Reggie was the kind of guy who walked into the room and it filled with good hearted kindness and joy. And laughter. LOTS of laughter. He'd gone to school with one of the ladies since they were about 8 or 9. Every week she walked in he'd yell, "Hey Buzzard!" and without missing a beat she'd yell back, "Hey ugly!" Then they'd hug heartily as the new people in the group looked to me for an explanation.
Reggie loved to laugh and yet he had that southern gentleman thing going so that if he told a joke, it was one you could tell in mixed company with the preacher standing by. Sure, they were often corny but they were funny. Sometimes you'd groan, sometimes it was a good belly laugh. Always there was a twinkle in his eye.
A couple of months ago, Reggie had gone out to supper with friends that he and his wife ate with weekly. His wife hadn't been feeling well and stayed home. Reggie called me that Monday to let me know he was going to be late for lunch because he had a doctor's appointment. Asking if I had the time, he told me of his "odd episode." After eating dinner with his friends, he explained that he remembered stopping to get gas, but he didn't remember where. Feeling odd, he went inside and asked the Clerk, who was filling up a cigarette machine, where he was. The guy, without looking at Reggie, muttered the name of the city where he'd had dinner. Reggie's a laid back kind of guy so with a smile I'm sure, he admitted to the guy he was a little confused. Turned around. Wondered if he maybe had a mini-stroke. Could the man please tell him exactly where he was?
Without looking up, the man merely repeated the name of the city, as he continued his task. Reggie got disgusted and walked out. He said he didn't really panic until later on, when his truck's side view mirror broke. He was driving down a road which had one lane blocked due to construction. Because he wasn't sure where he was, Reggie was driving slow and the driver behind him began to angrily flash his lights. When he glanced in the rear view mirror, he swerved slightly and hit one of the large, orange parking cones marking the lane. It flew up, hit his rear view mirror and the glass flew inside the truck, across his lap and onto the seat. Reggie said it was as if someone had flipped on a switch in his head. He pulled off the road and looked at the shattered shards on the front seat. He'd said he never rode with his window down but that night he had. The light glinting off the flying glass had, woke him up, as he put it.
Looking around he found himself on an interstate highway, headed north. He lived south. And two hours had passed.
Reggie said he didn't remember even getting on the road but he found his way back home. The doctor wanted to run some tests and he'd try to get to lunch before it was over. I assured him everything was fine.
When he came to lunch the next day, I asked how he was and he replied fine. Then he started with, "The weirdest thing happened to me Sunday." Silly me, I butt in and offered, "Yeah and if we ever figure out what gas station you went to, I will go have a word with that idiot who ignored you!" He looked at me oddly, asking if his wife had told me the story. When I said he'd told me on the phone the day before, he didn't remember calling.
A chill ran down my spine.
Over the next few weeks he'd have one more mini-stroke that put him in the hospital for a couple of days. I'm thinking his crankiness at being in a bed for so long got him discharged early. He said there were no clots in his brain but that a carotid artery was being treated by medication. He grinned, saying he'd won at least one round with his doctor. "She told me I couldn't drive for 6 months. I told her fine, I'd just ride the motorcycle. She shook her head and said, 'No driving!' to which I looked at her and said, 'It's not driving, it's RIDING.'" With a wink, he left the room with me grinning ear to ear.
And last Tuesday he was in my kitchen. When he finished his prep work, he'd go and sit in the recliner in my office. We had a deal: he could "exercise" the recliner if he promised not to snore. He always kept up his end of the bargain. He asked what time to put in the biscuits as I tried to co-ordinate another event. I knew that if I wasn't finished by noon, he would carry the food out to our buffet table, say grace and get the troops moving. As always I thanked him and he thanked me for fixing such a good meal. "And anyone who doesn't appreciate your cooking or all you do for us can answer to me!" he added, just loud enough for the complainers to hear. I can honestly say Reggie has often been the reason I haven't thrown my hands up in the air and walked out the door. He was my weekly hug and encouragement. All he charged was a smile.
Friday afternoon there was message on my home answering machine,"Reggie's dead."
Unexpected deaths, even in older folks, are often shocking. In fact, it is THE worst part of my job; getting close to people that begin to feel like extended family, then losing them. Reggie was so full of life, always helping others, that I had to play the message again to make it even begin to feel real. And yet at his funeral there was lots of laughter. I think he planned that somehow, making us laugh so regularly that it's the only sound we associate with him. One lady spoke of all the pranks they'd played on each other over the years. "I loved Biker Week and would ride down when he went down there with his wife. My birthday's then. He bought me a pair of yellow underwear that 10 women could've gotten in at the same time. I took them and ran them up the flag pole in front of his daughter's house. The next year he got me a pink pair....and put my name on them so I couldn't give them away." And with that, she opened a box and pulled out the biggest pair of hot pink panties I've ever seen and the crowd roared with laughter, shaking the rafters of that country church. I swear I could see Reggie sitting in the rafters, smiling.
The kitchen won't seem the same tomorrow. I even went ahead and set the tables today so I won't have to think about him not being there to do that for me. And yet, I'll still hear that ghostly laugh and cheerful greeting,"What you know good?"
My answer will be, "You."
The mug is a skeleton one I got him that year to reflect his nickname, "Bones".
He liked it so much he insisted on drinking out of it every week.
He even took it home and "doctored up the eyes" by adding red to them.
I think some of our newer members thought both of us were nuts, but he enjoyed the joke.