No one knew where he came from. Most of the residents in our shelter/home were referrals or people we had served with one of our other ministries. We lived communally with seminary students, the homeless, mental health persons in crises, staff and their families. We were open but selective to whom we opened our doors. He came and declared we should house him. Asked for referrals he said he had none. He was new to town. But he declared himself useful and we had an empty bed. So we took him in. He really left us no choice.
His name was Alexis Wilantevicz. He was a defrocked Russian Orthodox monk. Or at least he said he was. We would get in theological discussions and he dropped Russian fathers, bishops, and theologians names by the minute. Being a Southern Baptist I merely nodded my head when he would do this until he drifted back into a land I knew. He was a very assertive, flatterer who was used to having his way. After he found out I was an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. he would note how I sat on the podium with the same style and demeanor as King. I was his favorite staff member, probably because he could get the most from me. I often felt he was trying to educate me. He claimed to have lived in a hospitality house with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. He constantly offered me tidbits about her especially after he learned I admired her too.
He revealed early in our relationship that he was gay. This was no surprise but it’s always nice to go from speculation to knowledge. He said this was why he left the monastery. He would always laugh at himself in his flamboyant way and say, “Only I Alexis Wilantevicz would choose to come out of the closet in the midst of an AIDS epidemic.” This sad irony seemed to define his life.
He was indeed helpful. He had learned to cook good, cheap meals from very little at the monastery. So to the chagrin and concern of the rest of the staff I hired him as our Kitchen Manager. He thus became the first openly gay employee of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention paid for part of our work, the local Baptist district paid some, and the rest came from other churches across the nation as well as the small chapel that met inside the Center. The staff was concerned about facing reprisals if it was ever found out that Alexis was gay. We worked closely with over twenty churches. They would come and feed the homeless on Saturdays and Sundays. I told him to please not tell the churches he was gay. He promised not to but I swear when the churches were there he flamed exceptionally bright. On more than one occasion a concerned church member would come to me and say in a dismayed way, “I believe he is gay.” I would always reply by nodding my head, “HMM. That’s interesting.” and divert the conversation elsewhere.
Once he became comfortable he reveled in telling different members of our community he was gay to see their reactions. This began to have a backlash for him and me. I was suspected of having an affair with him, even though my wife and child were living with me. His flamboyance became exceptionally annoying to other members of the community. And if they ever had a complaint he would invoke my name, a habit not pleasing to other staff. To say the least, he was a handful. He loved to play the provocateur and ruffler of feathers. But I was learning about Dorothy Day, Russian Orthodox history and theology, and enjoyed being compared to MLK Jr. so our friendship continued. I liked him.
As part of my work with the homeless I was helping to organize busloads of people to a March to Washington called Housing Now! I felt very important because I had organized two buses out of the five going from our city. They even chose me to direct the bus riders to Washington, to the March, and back home again. I was full of myself until I realized the really important people flew to Washington ahead of time, skipping the nine and a half hour bus ride, and attended meetings before the March with the other big wigs. The church helped pay Alexis’ way to the March and off we went, five busloads from Louisville.
Alexis was insistent that he wanted to show me something significant when we got to Washington, D.C. I was insistent that he take a deep breath and let me make sure everything was okay with the transportation. I did not want to tell him a flat out no because I could tell by his demeanor that this was important, but was sure I would not have time for any side adventures. We were to attend the March, eat and get back on the bus. And I who was vaguely familiar with D.C. was to make sure no one was left behind. I felt overwhelmed.
At the March Jesse Jackson and other dignitaries spoke; Tracy Chapman sang ‘All That You Have is Your Soul.’ I was pumped but Alexis, knowing it was close to time to leave, was insistent. Taking a deep sigh I said, “You have thirty minutes.” We walked fast around a corner removed from the March. It was then I saw it. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing; row after row of quilts full of magnificent color. It was the AIDS Quilt. Quilts with notes and personal thoughts about someone who had died of AIDS. I began to notice the people around me; many were in tears, others with jaws set and some lost in thought. Then I heard the names being read, one after the other. I kept thinking surely the list would be exhausted but it never repeated itself; it kept marching ahead. I noticed Alexis off to the side observing me. AIDS was a new world for me. I knew the very basics but you heard all sorts of arguments questioning the basics. We walked back to the March where the others were. He was quiet, an unusual feat for him. We returned to Louisville.
It was a month later in the kitchen (his domain) he stopped me and said we need to talk. I said sure and he waited until he had my full attention. He began to cut an apple and handed me a slice. I noticed he was cutting with the blade toward him, a good way to get cut. “I got tested today,” he said. I said, “For what?” “HIV,” he said, handing me another slice of apple. Inside I shook with fear; I wanted to throw the apple down and run. “Really? What was the result,” I said. “I do not know yet,” he replied. He handed me another slice of apple. I ate it, making a calculation of how many slices could possibly be left in that apple. He said, “You know, people have problems with my being gay. HIV will scare them shitless.” I smiled, “Yea that should be a lot of fun for you.” He smiled back, “Yea that could be fun.” “Well you know we say we accept anyone here so there should not be any problems.” He sighed, “But I prepare the food and I have seen the irrational fear people can get especially with their food.” He cut me another slice of apple. Damn was he giving me some kind of test, I thought, as I took the apple from him. I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was going to be multiplied many times over with others. Taking a deep breath I sighed, “I guess we are all going to have to learn to live with it.” He knew I was not talking about HIV but the fear of it.
Two months later he was gone. As mysteriously as he came to us he had now disappeared. Rumors of sightings came for the first month. I followed the rumors up. But they all were dead ends. Slowly, I came to accept his absence. Why he left I do not know. He never confirmed whether he had HIV or not.
I later went on to work with Persons Living with AIDS for over eight years. I worked with over hundreds who would die too young. It was sometimes unbearable. Yet I could hear Alexis’ voice in my head. It was as if he was observing and guiding me through this time. I missed his flattery and even the brouhaha he created. I have a picture of him in my mind somewhere else with another young minister flattering, observing, yammering away about some Russian orthodox bishop of the eighteenth century, initiating them into new experiences, and giving them a final exam before he moved on. It is said we entertain angels unawares. I do not believe in angels but I do believe in Saints especially the Russian Orthodox ones.
Of all the professors on campus it was said he would be the first to be fired. He was not a firebrand but a mystic philosopher teaching the Old Testament in a Southern Baptist college. He was always stirring souls with what some would say were his heretical musings. He had written a brilliant doctoral dissertation on the winged serpents of the Canaanites and the formerly winged serpent of Genesis. But he was not as interested in academic studies as he was in the discovery of the minds and souls of the ancients.
He was a good heretic. He warned you at the beginning of each of his Old Testament classes of the pitfalls of knowledge. Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden because they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. God believed this would have destroyed them. Knowledge he emphasized was a dangerous thing. To know something can change the very essence of who you are or what you may do. Ignorance is bliss was not a quaint saying. If you do not want to be changed at your very core do not seek knowledge. He smiled ‘It could keep you in constant trouble with the administration,’ he added.
After his fair warning and then he continued to teach in his laid-back manner. Sitting usually. Sometimes with his feet on the desk. Always a conversational voice and manner. And then he would be distracted and stare into a corner of the room and, almost trancelike, begin to talk with great passion. Yahweh the God of the Jews could not survive in the city; he was a desert God. The Israelites thrived in the Wilderness. They communed with their God. They even broke bread with God daily when God supplied them with manna from heaven. But this was never enough; they wanted to build a great nation. So they built Jerusalem and made for themselves kings. But they longed for that closeness to God they once had. So they boxed God up in a tabernacle and put Him under house arrest in the Temple. They literally thought God could only leave the Temple when He was under close supervision and kept in a box, he reflected. Yes, he would say, Yahweh dies when he is taken out of the desert. Yahweh only thrived in our places of need.
Slowly the professor returned to the classroom. He would smile and talk once again about the text before us. I looked around; did my classmates hear and see these musings from God? I observed some with eyelids barely open, others with mouths agape in awe, and still others shaking their heads and muttering under their breaths. Had we heard and seen the same thing? The mutterers were confused how this would help them save souls, and missed that he was trying to give them a soul. The half-asleep would endure and move on to the next class and missed they had a soul. The open mouthed would think they were too soulful. And I was careful to filter the knowledge for he had said it was a dangerous thing.
He once and only once was allowed to speak at Chapel—a bi-weekly worship gathering for the whole campus. The topic of the sermon was ‘Funeral for a Friend.’ He entered through the back doors with a coffin and pall bearers in tow. The pallbearers placed the plain wooden coffin down in the front of the chapel. He stepped up to the lectern and began to speak. “Today we are gathered to mourn the death of our God. We have, with our grand schemes and glorious buildings in our attempt to become God, killed Him. It is said He was a good and kind God, never truly appreciated while He was alive but today, maybe for a moment, we can remember God in all His glory before we nail the coffin shut and bury it under the ground.” He almost lost his job for this sermon; no one talked about it again except in whispers.
He often talked about Jacob’s encounter with an angel in the Old Testament wilderness. He mused that when you truly came into contact with God it left you with a limp for the rest of your life. The cocky strut of youth and pride was replaced with a struggle to walk straight, leaving a question mark behind every belief. Biblical truth was not like the proud television evangelist who were so sure of truth. Truth held by doubting Thomases, denying Peters, and whining Jeremiahs. Truth scarred you put you on unstable ground.
For years he remained in his classroom, staring up into the corner as if listening to some angel speak and he was almost apologetic, especially if it left you limping. He was either hated or loved by his students. Some of those who loved him became groupies. They would join him on the weekends at his farm where he was building a new home with his own hands and the hands of friends and college students. After a hard day’s work where he exhibited his renowned carpentry skills and where he did more looking off into the distance and talking everyone would gather around his table; his family and the hands for the day would gather and feast.
It was at one of these gatherings that the incident happened. His students sat enjoying a home-cooked meal for a change, enjoying their proximity to the great man. When he suddenly stopped and looked at the corner of the room and started to muse. The students sat on the edge of their seats, ready to be caught up in his rhapsody when they heard the voice of his wife, “Can it Karen. Give it a rest for a while.” He obediently stopped and smiled. The students snickered. The great Dr. Joines brought to his knees and reality by his wife. All the students knew they needed a wife like that. Their heads were so much in the clouds they needed someone in their lives to bring them back to earth. Many a student fell in love with his wife that day.
At the birth of his child he declared that oak branches, reaching across the road to each other on his drive home, were clapping their approval of the event. God spoke every day in the quiet of wilderness if we listened, and he always listened.
After college I lost touch with the goings-on of Dr. Joines. Other professors came and went into my heart and head. My life was consumed by working with the homeless and starting my own family. But somehow I still hear his voice and musings.
I do not know what happened in the rest of his life. Did he finally get fired when the fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention? Did he face the death of his children or did the magic leave his marriage? I do not know how life challenged him. But I do know how life challenged me. I got to know that knowledge could lead to wonder and beauty but more often than not it proved dangerous and upsetting. I encountered God many times through the lives of addicts, Persons Living with AIDS, homeless, and the mentally ill. But all these encounters though beautiful usually left me with a little limp in my soul. Knowledge was as he described it in his classes and awesome responsibility that once you had it you were responsible. To not act on the knowledge you had was not to live at all. But to act on that same knowledge could cause havoc and you would find yourself at odds with administrations.
After twenty-six years of teaching Dr. Joines faced a new wave of challenge in the mid-nineties when the fundamentalists complained about his wayward teachings. He was constantly called before the Provost or President to explain something he had taught or said. When asked about it he understated, ‘The whole thing was distasteful.” But at the same time he was using his carpentry skills to restore a home the university had purchased in the heart of London. It was a place to provide travel and cultural learning opportunities for generations of students. It must have brought him satisfaction to offer students another way to view the world.
Despite all the controversy that swirled around him he retired and never was fired. Though I no longer know where he is I am convinced of one thing. That wherever he is, he walks slowly with a cane in hand, down a road covered with oak limbs touching. Along the way he stops and looks off into the sky and for a brief fleeting moment he sees the face of God and he smiles, sighs, and continues walking. And I imagine occasionally the new truth still gets him in trouble.
I could not tell you their names. They were my neighbors. I mean my gay neighbors. That was important to this newly married seminary student ready to discover all things spiritual. At first I was shocked. There are gay couples in the world? After all this was in the early 1980s, long before gay was cool. I realized God had moved me into this apartment for a reason. My purpose was to show these men the true blessings of heterosexuality and let them see this little light of mine.
Of course this project would have to be done in my spare time as my studies and prayers came first. It pleased me when I realized the walls were thin enough to hear through. This meant every time I made love to my new wife they would hear the bliss that is heterosexuality. Of course I did not realize that would also mean I would hear the bliss that is homosexuality. Strangely some of the sounds were very similar. But of course this only meant that I had to coax my wife into more vigorous and vocal sex. After all the reputation of heterosexuals was at stake. I found that explaining this to my wife was not an aphrodisiac.
I also decided to add to the bliss that was heterosexual sex; I had to give witness that I was happier than they were. So every time I would see them on the landing I presented my biggest smile and proclaimed in typical Oklahoma musical style what a glorious day it was. This may have seemed odd to them when my new wife and I were fresh from a heated discussion which I am sure they could hear through the walls. And I was now on the landing because my wife had locked me out of the house. But I am sure they were amazed at how happy I could be even in adversity. Oh what a beautiful morning!
They were hard to beat in their willingness to help others. Although this should be the true Christian’s calling card. They had some kind of gay thing going on with the downstairs neighbor. She was an elderly woman who lived by herself. They checked in on her and went shopping for her and often brought her meals. I do not know what they saw in her. She was a nuisance to me. She was always stopping me to talk on my way out or in. I was trying to go to my seminary classes to learn about Christianity so I could help change the world, and there she would be saying hi and wanting conversation. And she could talk. If she stopped me, I could be there at least five minutes. So I developed the habit of peeking out my door and seeing if she was visible and if she was, I waited until she went back into her apartment and then I would run down the stairs as fast as I could to get to my class. This practice could sometimes make me late for school. But she was a tricky one; she would sometimes go back in her apartment and immediately come back out and there I would be stuck talking with her, or rather, listening to her. And she knew me; being the good Christian I would be compelled to stop and talk with her.
The couple next door…. To call them gay seems so old fashioned. I am experienced now. I was surprised to learn one of them had been married before and had a child. And that child would come visit them. I always thought, “poor child” but years later she would be in the daycare where I worked to help pay the bills, and I found she was a unique and beautiful child. I know what it means to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, I saw this young child do it.
Trying to be better than my neighbors was hard when they would frequently knock on our door; I would answer and they would have fresh baked pie or cookies to share. They were nice. Too nice; I wondered if in some kind of wicked gay agenda they were competing with me. This thought disturbed me because they seemed better at the game than I was. But that was only because I was so consumed with studying to be a spiritual leader; after I graduated I would have more time to be nicer and defeat their gay agenda.
One day they knocked on my door and asked me to do them a favor. At last an opportunity to show them who was the boss of niceness. I had never had to knock on their door to ask them for a favor. Well, there was once when I needed a ride or I would be late for class. I laughed inside as they drove to the campus they were probably the first gay people to ever set foot there. But now here they were on my doorstep asking me for a favor and I would of course say yes and show them my natural Christian benevolence. But God was testing me. They were going out of town for two weeks and wanted to know if I could check in on the dreaded elderly neighbor downstairs. What a wicked gay agenda plot they knew my Christian charity would compel me to say yes. Agree. They gave me the key to her apartment. She trusted them with a key! Here I was the good Christian and she gave them a key! Go figure.
The first week I was diligent to do my Christian duty to my elderly neighbor; I stopped by every day. It was not as bad as I thought it would be. She was nice and thankful, although she kept telling me about the nice dinners the boys (that was what she called them) brought her. She made me uncomfortable because I think she was hinting for me to bring her some food. The second week I was busy with God’s work. It was finals and I wanted to be sure the professors knew how spiritual and wise I was becoming.
The long week passed and I was having my after-dinner prayer and scripture time. Then I heard the boys come home. I heard a girly scream and patter of feet. I shook my head thinking, “Man, they are so gay.” I heard a knock on the door and there was one of my neighbors all stressed out and overwrought with emotions, just like a girl. He looked at me and asked when I had last seen our elderly neighbor? I thought and realized to my chagrin I had forgotten all about her for the last few days. And then with tears down his cheeks he said, “She is dead.” They had called an ambulance and asked me if I could I stay by her door while they phoned and notified her family. I said yes. I walked downstairs. Her door was open. I stepped inside and there was her body by the coffee table. She looked as though she had fallen, hit her head, and had been dead for at least a couple of days. I had failed the niceness test.
There I stood at the woman’s door helpless. I realized my neighbors were calling her closest of kin and arranging her affairs. I was the guardian of the door. They met the medics and told them where the body was to be taken answered the police’s question. I watched feeling guilty and not knowing whether to stay or go. Finally one of them approached me and could see the shame on my face and said, ‘She was old and her time came no one is to blame.” He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a thought, “He would make a good minister, too bad he was gay.”
That evening after everything had calmed down. I had a quiet dinner with my wife. I was not my usual enlightened self, regaling her with some new truths I had learned in class. After dinner as was my habit I retired to our second bedroom which we had converted into a study and prayer room for me. I sat down in my chair numb, to the world about me. I did not feel like praying so I picked up the Bible and read the liturgical reading for the day. The gospel reading was Luke and it was the story of the Good Samaritan. The one where the outcast Samaritan takes care of the beaten stranger after all the good religious folk passed him by. The story that ends with Jesus asking, “Who was the good neighbor?” I wept.
The Cross Bearer
The ragged figure approaching the porch had sweat-stained clothes and his face and hands were covered with dust. He trudged along a little bowlegged. A cigarette hung loosely from his lips. He was a short but wiry figure and when one got closer they could see he was but a child of ten or eleven. He looked enthusiastically at the house knowing supper, drink, and rest awaited him there. But a glimpse at the porch made his heart sink. His belongings were carefully placed in a bag there with a knapsack of food for him. This was a signal it was time to leave. His emotions shut down; he would not cry. He had cried the first couple of times. His father had tossed him to the road at nine to fend for himself, saying “I cannot take care of you anymore.” It was the Depression and times were hard: these were the words his father had used to justify the action. The boy had lost his home and no one else would give him that security again. Relatives took him in and when they had met their quota of hospitality or he had completed the work they needed, they turned him away to go see the next house. No, he would not cry again but he promised himself he would build a home one day and he would never turn anyone away.
He grew into a rugged, determined old man. I called him grandfather. I remember details of him vaguely, but his general impression bears a deep mark within me. He was living with us for the summer. I had just graduated from high school. I was in a transition that was bringing out all my insecurities.
He and grandma had come to stay awhile. He was going to build a barn for my father. I hated the idea of the barn and the building of it. We lived in town on a corner lot for Christ sake. My grandfather reveled in the idea. He had learned carpentry at an early age to help earn money.
I was told to help him as much as I could. I felt uncomfortable working on the barn. It was his and their fool idea I thought. He’s too old to build the barn. I’ll be stuck with all the work. And I’m too busy. I didn’t want to help. I don’t know why.
He dragged me to the lumber store. He inspected every piece of wood carefully. The wood could not have too many knots and had to be straight. The wood needed to be treated for termites unless you could afford cedar. Cedar’s smell was a natural deterrent to bugs and it did not rot easily. He saw my impatience. “This is the beginning of making a good structure,” he said. “It needs to be just right or you will have trouble down the line.” I thought, whatever; let’s get out of here.
The first day I watched him from the window of the house. He struggled to pick up the beams on his back. Knees once strong, now wobbled with age. It was no longer strength that did the work; it was determination. His eyes were not as good as they once were. He squinted to see if the boards were straight and aligned. His hands were swollen with arthritis for as long as I could remember and his dexterity was hampered. He said it made him feel better to do hard work; it was all he ever knew.
I remembered the stories they told of my grandfather when I was growing up. From the age of nine he had worked. His father had abandoned him to lady luck and she did not take kindly to him. He was tossed out of his home and left to roam from household to household of kin. Time passed and it became a way of life. He learned to work hard early. He grew accustomed to it. He developed into a working machine. Jobs were hard to find in the Depression; you needed a connection to get one. He did not have those as a young man who had been abandoned as a boy. The story went on and on.
He was unemployed and wanting to get married, he would wake early and walk a near ten miles to the Goodyear plant and ask for a job. He was determined to have a house and he wanted his own business. When they said there was no job, he would sweep and clean the yard around the plant. He knew the factory jobs were the best in the area for an uneducated man. So he worked unpaid for two weeks, always arriving on time and cleaning the yard. The third week they asked him to come early and clean the inside workplace before everyone arrived. Slowly, they asked him to do other chores around the place. He would smile and do them, always being sure he did the best job. Every once and awhile they would give him some change for his efforts. He did this for two months before they hired him full-time.
The story would continue; he never had time for regular schooling. Yet he managed along the way to educate himself. He could read and he could write. He would own a grocery store and rent the three buildings he constructed next to it. He taught himself how to do all of the accounting. He lived by no great philosophy: give a good day’s work for a day’s food.
His own father came through town in desperate straits with a new wife and new kids. They had no money or food. He swallowed his anger and filled the trunk of their car with food from the grocery store and gave his father all the money he had in the register. He knew how it was to have nothing and he had pledged to himself if he ever had anything he would always help others if asked. He then looked at his father and told him never to come back. His father knew not to come back and never did.
The legend of the “failed robbery” was told to me. Once robbers invaded his home--tied him and grandma up and took all of their money. As he sat on the floor with his hands tied he saw the fear in his wife’s eyes and a rage welled up inside him. He had grown a home where he and his would never have reason to fear, have want, feel rejection; this was not to occur in the house he built. I imagined him with long suppressed rage he had buried deep under his new home coming to the surface. Because somehow in the fury he managed to untie himself as the robbers were beginning to escape in their getaway car. He got his shotgun and shot the wheels of the fleeing car rendering it immobile and then walked up to the car. He told them to get out of the car. The tone in his voice let the thieves know it was best to listen to him. He marched them to the house, suggested “politely” that they apologize to his wife. They did and he held them captive until the sheriff came. As the sheriff was putting the thieves in the back of the car, my grandfather leaned in the window said, shaking his head, “If you had only asked I would have given you pretty much everything you stole.” He was not lying; he was known as a man who would give anyone a helping hand as long as they asked. Grandmother once said in hush tones after the sheriff left that my grandfather walked to the backyard and cried for over an hour. This was something he had not done since he was a boy. He was never seen to cry again. Was it the rage and pain he felt inside? I suppose. He must have buried them deep under the house that day, because I never saw them rise to the surface again. The next day he simply went on tending his home and building his business.
Each day in the backyard I heard a constant sawing and hammering. He started work early and quit late. No wages were paid. He was too old to care for those. It was to give his work away that he toiled. Once he and I went to install a window air conditioner unit in the elevated bathroom window of our house. I slipped and the unit was falling; he rushed under it and let it land on his back so it would not fall to the ground. Slowly he lifted it back in the window. After it was over I feared he would tell my father and my father would be mad or ridicule me. But when my father asked about the air conditioner grandfather merely said, “It was in.” I often heard him in his bed at night groaning silently as I passed his room. I suppose he had long since learned not to complain; it might mean an early exit from a comfortable bed.
I knew he was a proud deacon of his church and taught the same Sunday School class for over twenty years. His church had become a fixture in his life. My father would later teach the same class for another twenty years. Church members would talk about the “visit” the KKK made to present the church with a huge Bible for display in the front. They did this often to show their influence in the community. They said my grandfather met them at the door of the church with his shotgun and told them to keep their Bible. They left; they knew as I knew he was fool enough to shoot them if they pressed the issue. Strangely his church was not integrated but he was not going to let it be segregated either. Everyone needed a home, physical and spiritual, and no one especially in the House of God he would say should be turned away.
I would be regaled with these stories years later at his viewing before the funeral. I helped him with the barn when the mood came. I was so darn moody those days. He took great pride in showing me tricks of the carpentry trade. He enjoyed himself most when he was outworking me. He never said anything about it. He just did it. We would talk some as we labored. Usually we talked about God and religion since that would be my occupation. God, to him, was a hard task master but loved you even though you were seldom up to the task. He didn’t agree with what I thought were innovative ideas but he listened attentively. I wondered why he didn’t complain to God of the pain and fear of abandonment he felt. Maybe he was afraid God would send him packing if he asked why. But with the pain and unanswered questions he went on as if he enjoyed life. He learned early not to let circumstances cast his mood.
Slowly the barn rose up from the ground. It was good workmanship and done in the heat of the Alabama summer sun. He had finished the work he had started. And it was good.
After the barn raising he left to return to the area where he grew up. I visited him once and we played poker with matches as money. He chortled the whole time we played whether he lost or won. I imagine he had played poker a lot in his youth but it was not good form for a Baptist deacon. But it was okay with his grandson, especially if all you won were matches. This would be our last meaningful encounter.
The barn was the last art he was to make. Grandmother had been complaining of my grandfather’s increasing inactivity. He sat in his chair holding his side and not saying much. Until one day he looked at her with a loving hurt and said he needed to go to the doctor. He died three days later of cancer. He must have known for several months but did not want to leave the medical cost of treatment behind for his family to pay. The lung cancer was probably brought on by the cigarette smoking he had started when he was a child, trying to feel as adult as his co-workers. He said he should have quit a long time ago but it had become something that had given him a feeling of security. When the doctors gave him the diagnosis at the hospital he nodded in acknowledgement and said to his son, “Take me home.” His other son, a long- time alcoholic, came as quickly as he could after being told. He lived out of town and we knew grandfather would not let himself die until he saw him. So he lingered for two days until the son arrived. The same day his son came he told him he loved him. And an hour later as they were talking about football, he died. Grandmother wailed and those of us in the other room knew.
At the viewing an old friend dressed poorly and with a crusty demeanor sought out his grandchildren. He wanted them to know that although he had not seen Granddad for years, he knew when he saw the obituary he needed to come and tell his family of his love and respect for my grandfather. He said he was the best friend a man could ever have. He knew Granddad when he was a young wild buck. In their early twenties they drank, smoked, gambled and chased women together. He was in awe as he watched the young man he knew grow into this saintly man. He said, “You probably don’t know this but your grandfather was known as the greatest bronco rider in these parts.” I laughed; I was not sure that was saying much in north Alabama. Then he paused from all the stories and said, “When I needed a friend he was there for me and took me in.” With tears streaming down his eyes he continued, “I wanted his family to know what kind of man he was.” As strangely as he had appeared, he left.
I cried at his funeral. But I also smiled. The old country church was full of his friends and family. The choir sang his favorite song The Old Rugged Cross. “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross… I will cling to the old rugged cross…. Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world.” I realized as I enjoyed the service and saw the many friends and family present, my grandfather had constructed a heritage unlike others. He left not an estate but a well-built life: sturdy, durable, and straight. This good life was framed and endures. He did not have cedar and God had given him nothing but an old rugged cross with rotten timbers to carry on his journey. Yet he had created a home for so many including a sullen me.