His smile extended all the way to the corners of his gentle eyes as he told his stories. A practiced story teller he reveled in details and dialog and the occasional interjection from the small gathering of onlookers. He played off each chuckle, seized each question, and wove a tale from childhood to infinity that somehow included each of us.
I stayed by his side the next several hours. I studied the wrinkles and sunspots that told their own stories and wondered if my own face would, someday, tell such stories. Did my smiles and sighs and freckles speak to those who knew me? I hoped so.
At nearly 80 he was one of the most vibrant and driven people I’d met. He held nothing back. He shared his musings, his opinions, his knowledge, his philosophies, and, most of all, his lessons learned. But he didn’t just tell. He shared. He recounted events by bringing them to life and engaging each of us.
“You already know the answer,” he said. “You know what that means,” he encouraged. “Each of us is gifted with the ability to understand,” he taught.
And he taught of balance, of a goal orientation that is not obsessed with perfection but with continually living and learning and loving. I needed this lesson today. Well, I need it most days.
As he talked of his father, a topic I’d not expected, I caught myself wondering if he saw something in me that prompted him to take his story from our studies to our childhoods.
“My father was an alcoholic. He was also a workaholic. He didn’t know how to do something without putting everything he had into it. So he would work until he couldn’t work any longer. Then he would drink until he couldn’t drink any longer. He was in love with the extremes in life.”
“He didn’t understand the need for balance…” I began.
“No. He had no idea what balance was,” he affirmed.
“We all struggle with balance but it’s there for us if we want it, if we’d just hold on to it,” I offered.
“You understand,” he said. “You’re here today to find and hold on to some of that balance. And I think that’s just great.”
He continued, “Our parents might not have understood that during our childhoods, but we still learned from them, didn’t we?”
How, I wondered, did he mean that? How could he know my story? Or is it everyone’s story?
We continued in silence for a while before he stopped, just slightly winded, to smile again and bring all of today’s storylines together. He was definitely a master at this.
“We’re still learning. Everyone in our culture is. But this is our world and it’s infinite but it’s up to us to tell the stories that ensure its eternity. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
I smile now remembering and wondering his meaning. He was one of those spirits you don’t soon forget, and I know I will carry his stories with me for some time. He said I didn’t need to write them down but I did need to reflect on them. He said I didn’t need to study them but I did need to share them, for we all have stories to tell; and, now ours are one.
I set down my tablet. I sigh and let in the lyrics that have been swimming in my head:
“Now I wasn’t looking for heaven or hell
Just someone to listen to stories I tell…
Subtle salvation in poems we know
Hiding our heads in a shadow of home
Now I wasn’t looking for wreaths or for bells
Just someone to listen to stories I tell
Stories I tell*”
My story is not over but it has infinite layers, all beautiful, all interconnected, and all shared. I just need someone to listen to the stories I tell.
We all do.
*Lyrics from Toad the Wet Sprocket, “Stories I Tell”