Best friends have shorter conversations lasting twice as long, three times as deep, and you only need to say half as much for them to understand it all.
The search is over.
30 years of looking left me one day short of locating my longtime best friend.
At 12:19am this morning, Jodie notified me that Jim had passed in a California hospital just 6 hours earlier from a surgical infection.
For much of my 20s, Jim and I did everything together from hiking to biking to traveling and we made some of the best memories up and down the west coast two quirky guys ever could. I’d exhausted all leads many years back, resigned that maybe—or obviously—Jim just didn’t want to be found.
Turns out I’d been only 320 miles away and right on both counts.
His life was an inspiration for that wonderful decade of explorational youth as single, available young men. I’ve assembled so much to tell him since, in hopes of finding him, if only he would have surfaced a little sooner.
But he was quiet, humble, unpretentious and always flew under the radar, never having coveted the spotlight nor celebration of anyone. I’m told his final years were spent reclusive, likely fighting the mental health demons we’d discussed 40 years ago and about which I promised to never reveal for as long as I lived…but now wonder if that was the kind of promise that should ever be made by a true friend.
Alas, I now have someone who I’m assured will be first in line to hug me at heaven’s gate soon enough. I’d have loved to write a much longer story about our decade of friendship together but it wouldn’t be fair if he couldn’t read it first. So I’ll just keep that story inside me as a special parting gift from Jim. Can’t wait to see you man.
[In memory of our dad, Mike Miller,the funniest damn man I ever knew up until the very end.]
Whether naked and afraid
In the most desolate of places
During loneliest of moments
Or darkest of spaces.
Not a penny to your name
Nor a shirt on your back
Not a crumb in your stomach
Not a morsel to snack.
Even closest to death
And losing your fight
On your last breath
With the end now in sight.
It matters not time
It matters not place
You can always find humor
To leave a smile on your face.
It’s -uss with two s’s
After See with one -e
If today you send wishes
For a Happy Birthday to me!
I taught you to read,
Still my name looks like hell
You love my stories indeed
But still can’t spell very well.
–Dr. Freakin Seuss #HappyBirthdayDrSeuss
As garnishes go
I’m not much of a pro
But here I will state my opinion.
Tall and verdantly grow
I love cilantro
The best of my herbal dominion.
I’m a fan as you see
Of this little green tree
And order it wherever I go.
Not quite coriander
(Which is ever much blander)
And the seed from which cilantro must grow.
But today some will hate
This spice on your plate
Like you’ll die if you actually must eat it.
But by the bushel or bunch
Breakfast, dinner or lunch
It’s delicious and I think you can’t beat it.
Happy “ɪ ʜᴀᴛᴇ ᴄɪʟᴀɴᴛʀᴏ ᴅᴀʏ” to all you tasteless haters who don’t know a good thing when you seed it.
It was both very dark and very cold at 4:15 this morning when I was inspired by a young black father in line at Walmart.
Waiting for the checker, I asked “Sick kid?”
“Yeah, all night,” as he laid out a small pharmacy on the check stand. We talked about the pain of a parent when kids hurt and he shared she’d been sick most of this week and how being a single father it was difficult to leave her home while he was at work ten miles away.
The checker arrived, he paid and we shook hands, both desperately praying for a speedy recovery for his little girl. My purchase made, I walked out into the dark, cold morning to see him fidgeting with the lock on an old bicycle.
Turns out, he lived four miles up Boulder Highway and didn’t relish the cold ride home or the couple hours ahead for a nap before riding that same rickety bike across town to his job.
After much insistence on my part, we packed up his bike and drove the distance, pulling into the drive of a small trailer where he and his six year old lived. I wished him well and he said thanks. Nothing more needed said, just the chance meeting of two fathers who may never meet again but who love their kids so much sometimes it hurts, and an inspiring way to begin both our days.
He’s a real life hero. Kayla, get well soon. Your dad loves you a whole lot.
I buried an old woman in my backyard.
My two young daughters and I dug a hole, put her in, said some farewell prayers and cried. It was more than 35 years ago and I still miss her terribly.
Her name was Josie Brown. She was originally from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, a little town in the northeast part of the state smack dab in Tornado Alley. I remember that because all my life I’ve been fascinated by tornadoes and she would tell me tales of those “wicked winds” nearly every visit if I’d ask. I’d like to say I remember exactly how she made her way to live and die here in Las Vegas of all places, but I don’t. But I do know that for the last several years of her brittle life, I was her closest friend. I was her only friend.
I got the call from the mortuary one afternoon at work.
My family-owned advertising agency business was in its peak years. Clients were demanding. I rarely left for lunch unless it was to treat a client. None of us did. The agency was an incredible firm staffed with 21 employees, five of which were my family members. Miller & Associates was a great place to work. We took care of each other and our employees. We had each others’ backs before it became a cliché.
I was writing some quick ad copy for a banking client so dad could get the ad typeset and out for production to make the newspaper deadline that evening. We were never late, even with the most last minute of rush jobs. And because of our impeccable reputation for timely payment, honesty and fairness, we very well could have been late and the paper would have made exception for late insertion without question. They didn’t do that for anyone else to my knowledge.
Judi paged my office, “Donnie, there’s a call on line 4 but I can’t tell what it’s about. Some mortuary. Are we pitching a mortuary for God’s sake?” She was a riot, my mom’s assistant, and her best friend. She might as well have shared our surname.
We were always pitching business and the company was so well run by the Miller & Associates staff, it wasn’t unheard of for companies to pitch us to handle their advertising, marketing and public relations needs.
“Hello, this is Don. How can I help you?,” I answered, still frantically “keyboarding” the rush copy for dad on my brand new, state of the art Kaypro 256 computer. The entire hard drive was 256MB and the $2,000 investment made the now obsolete IBM Selectric 3 my sister still used for typing her press releases in the next office a noisy nuisance. I closed the window between our offices.
“Good afternoon. Is this Donald Miller?,” the woman on the other end asked.
“Yes ma’am, this is.”
“This is Bunker Brothers Mortuary on Las Vegas Boulevard South. We have Josie Brown here for you to pick up.”
It had been a long time since I’d last seen Josie or heard her name but not as long since I’d thought about her. I knew the call wasn’t that Josie was waiting for me in their lobby for a ride to the store.
Josie had passed the week prior. The cause of death was unknown, but I knew better. She died of loneliness. A lifetime of it. She was 84, and had earned every year of it.
“We called her nephew, a Pastor in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He’s the only kin she has left. They didn’t want her,” she said rather hastily, as if families routinely rejected the cremated remains of their deceased kin.
Having worked phone sales at a cemetery once before many years earlier, I would eat lunch out by the crematorium and on some days when the door was open, I’d go inside and look around. Little plastic twist-tied grey bags of so many unknown souls lined shelf upon shelf around the big burning ovens. No one had come for them. No one had claimed them. Their final resting place was a wooden shelf among strangers with a daily view of the ovens which had incinerated their existence like so many others.
“He what?!,” I replied in disbelief. “He refused her cremains?”
“Yes, Mr. Miller, that is the case. Your name is the only other contact we found in her belongings when she passed. If you don’t want her, we’ll just put her out for disposal.”
I made arrangements to get her after work and called my wife to say I’d be late, but I didn’t say I was bringing company home. For good.
I first met Josie Brown when I was a 17 year old Bonanza High School student. I’d been elected Student Body President at the new high school that year and our student council had planned a Christmas visit to the old folks home on the corner adjacent to the school stadium. It was just another service project like so many service projects we’d done before.
We were armed with decorations, holiday cookies, snacks, a council secretary who played an impressive single finger piano, me with my guitar and all those we could recruit for the early evening event. We were given a certain window of time to get in and get out as the staff didn’t want med and sleep schedules interrupted, likely for fear they might miss the start of their favorite prime time programming.
It was a dismal place. The only holiday décor in sight was what we’d brought, and this was a week before Christmas. The caretaking staff tolerated the visit of our dozen or so teens. I think we were all genuinely happy to be there, though. It was that rare feeling in youth when you do something good for someone else when all you’ve ever been concerned about at that age has been yourself. I’m not sure if that was the source of our smiles or if it was seeing the room of lonely pajama’d octogenarians leaning in chairs and wheelchairs, none standing, fewer smiling.
It wasn’t organized this way but it seemed like each of us picked one resident for the evening. But in my case, I’d quickly realized it was I who was chosen.
She sat in a modest blue calf length house dress with brittle weathered hands folded in her lap atop one another. It was her smile that had caught my attention. She was, to the best of my memory, the only one whose face carried any expression at all. Her rich blue eyes had long since clouded over with cataracts, especially the left one. It was probably not the only untreated illness she’d endured for as many years as she had lived there.
I say “lived,” but there was no life at that place. At least not as we experience life, especially then as self-indulgent teens who’d volunteered our time that evening without any real inconvenience. It was a two hour Friday night stint and we could party afterward. I know, privately, through the smiles, each wondered when the project would be over. It was a gloomy sadness we experienced that evening, a stark contrast to the colorful, loud, joyous fun times we had been enjoying in preparation for the holiday outside those walls.
Josie’s seat was closest to the piano and her cloudy blues summoned me to the empty chair at her side.
“Hi! Are you having fun?,” I asked in adolescent naivete.
“Well hello young man. And yes, this is wonderful, thank you,” she replied with the distinct southern drawl of a proper lady.
“My name is Don Miller and we are so glad to be here with you this evening. What is your name?”
“Josie. My name is Josie Brown Don Miller.”
“Well that’s funny, we share the same last name “Josie Brown Don Miller!,” I said in a lame attempt at humor an 80 something old woman wasn’t likely to get. I was 17, quite sad at the time and I think my attempt was really to boost my own mood, not hers. I’d confused her a bit with my humor and it was embarrassingly obvious.
“So, Josie, how have you been?,” I asked as if it had been awhile since our last visit, with a woman I’d never seen her before in my life.
“Well fine, Don.” She spoke softly as the single finger pianist next to us pounded out the notes of some indistinguishable Christmas hymn. It was hard for her to hear me and while she loved music, this was not music. She was getting uncomfortable and anxious at all the sound and action around. Surely, it was more noise and action her group had heard and seen in perhaps years.
Relocating to two vacant chairs across the room took some time, of course. Once seated in the still warm chairs which had been vacated minutes before by two other residents who had already returned to their rooms for any number of reasons, Josie and I began to talk.
“Well, Don, I’m from Oklahoma. Do you know where that is?”
“Of course I do. That’s where Tornado Alley is, right?” I was attempting to find a topic for a conversation starting point and it was easier to begin with something of interest to me than to her.
Josie and I talked tornadoes, family, Christmas memories and all the topics of holiday chats. It was apparent she’d had a rich life history of stories which had rarely, if ever, been told. Nobody was interested. Drinking our punch from styrofoam cups and an occasional bite of a store bought sugar cookie, I listened.
Our two hour gig was up 20 minutes ago and most of my classmates had long since said their goodbyes and lies to come back and visit again soon. Me, I couldn’t get out of my chair.
That frail old woman had captivated me that night. Her stories of Midwest living, life on the farm, the hard times and hard work of being a prairie woman in the grain fields and the vivid imagery of a kind of country life this city boy had only read in books had brought us into the third hour of the evening. The nurses had cleaned up, patients and residents were long since in their rooms asleep and we had been cued at least twice by one of the nurses that it was time to go.
That night changed my life forever.
Many years later during my graduate program and a class named “Society and the Psychology of Aging,” I had written a shortened version of this story for my final class project. I have looked all over for that essay, especially the photo of Josie that I’d paired with it. I have yet to find it. It is important because it is the only photograph of her that I have. I don’t need it, really. Her face is as clear in my now own rapidly aging mind as that night in the Torrey Pines Convalescent Center. My short essay for the class, the last one presented before the Christmas break, brought the entire class to tears. I got an A and a million questions about this magical pioneer woman who’d stolen my heart. I have since found two photos.
A little more than a week after having met Josie, I returned. It was either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, I don’t recall. What I do remember, however, made me more sad than I’d initially been on my first visit. Except for the skeleton crew of workers and the residents, the place was void of visitors. It was the biggest holiday of the year, and nobody was celebrating. Nobody had reason to.
Checking in at the nurse’s station, I managed approval to visit Josie. Walking down the dingy linoleum hall, gift in hand for Josie, I paused just a little at each door to see how other residents might be spending their holiday. It was cruel. Seeing some stranger at their doors this holiday, even for an instant, brought small words of welcome, believing they were the one selected to be remembered that cold winter day. As I walked on, door to door, the expressions were the same. I had brought one gift for Josie and in that short walk down the hallway, had broken the dreams of so many bedridden others.
Josie was startled by my visit and said all the quiet humilities to me of how she didn’t deserve such a treat, especially since I had family to be with. Her room was darkened and not so good for her already impaired vision. She was wrapped in a thin blanket, half reclined in her bed. The night stand was empty except for a table lamp with a low watt bulb, the only illumination for her holiday. No cards. No gifts. No trinkets or holiday snacks. The room was cold, austere and obviously designed to make the outgoing of one resident and the incoming of the next as seamless as possible. They were not in the business of keeping beds empty.
Her room was shared by another elderly woman who had died during the week and Josie expressed anxiety wondering who her next roommate might be. “I hope she’s not mean,” she said. “The lady who was here was not a very kind person. She was loud and kept me up all night, Don,” she continued. I was pleased she’d remembered my name.
I presented her my gift, a digital alarm clock radio, which she opened slowly marveling as if it were the crown jewels. Hastily, though, she pulled open her nightstand drawer and placed it inside, closing the door and looking over her shoulder as if she were a bandit hiding her loot.
“You know, it would probably look better if you put it on your night stand and plugged it in, Josie,” I joked. Looking at me, she was puzzled a bit, but cautiously retrieved the gift from the drawer and I installed it on her table. The volume of the radio was factory set to max and as I tried to demonstrate the many functions, she was frightened as I clamored to find the volume control. It hadn’t been programmed so the loud shriek of radio static coming from room 24 had disturbed countless residents down the hall. No nurses though. They were at their station having a holiday potluck of their own. The radio sound could have been shrieks of agony from a resident and they would have known no difference.
Josie told me that she was reluctant to leave such an expensive gift out in the open for long as “they take things, you know.” Whether it was her now deceased roommate, other residents or the nurses, she was definitely afraid of losing the $20 gift I’d brought her.
We talked for awhile, occasionally pausing as a patient on a walker meandered past the open door destined for a hard seat in the TV room down the hall. Josie was big on privacy and not just a little paranoid, I’d thought. She mentioned the family in Oklahoma she hadn’t seen nor heard from in many years but was obviously proud of her nephew Richard, who was a pastor back in Sapulpa. He had a large congregation in the very small town, last she knew. I asked if she’d heard from him for the holidays and though it was quite obvious she’d heard from no one, she made excuses on his behalf about the many miles between them, the possibility that the nurses had intercepted his greeting cards or that the holiday season was his busiest time.
I never heard if she had any other living relatives. On my visits, I tried to keep the topics current and relatively upbeat.
I came back almost weekly from there on out. I usually brought some sort of gift or trinket for her drawer and we’d chat for an hour until I had to be back to work. As years passed, I followed her to three other convalescent centers after her Torrey Pines eviction. Each one was progressively worse, dingier, dirtier, even less involved and more disinterested than the one before. Nursing home prices went up and her small government check could buy her fewer and fewer conveniences.
And as those years passed, I was ashamed to have scheduled less and less time for her. Weekly visits became biweekly, then monthly and eventually only on the major holidays. Each time I would track her down in those later years and show up unannounced. She was always as cheerful to see me as on that first Christmastime visit.
I learned more about myself during those times than I knew what to do with. And writing this, even now I’m still very much at a loss with the emotions.
I’d become busier with work, marriage, family and home that I didn’t seem to make time for even a quick visit now and then. I was secretly ashamed of myself but shared the sentiment with no one but my conscience.
My feelings of guilt over having gradually abandoned her like everyone else in her life had done were laid to rest the day my kids and I buried that small, sealed brown box which contained the remains of the old prairie woman from Sapulpa who had more than once captured my heart.
“Was there anything else?,” I asked at the mortuary that afternoon picking up Josie’s cremains. “She had many possessions I’d given her over the years.”
“No, nothing was turned in but this Valentine card with her picture. That’s how we knew to contact you because your name and phone number were on the back.”
The red construction paper with deckled edges and a wallet sized photo of Josie inset in a lacy red heart in the center read, underneath in pencil:
To my friend, Don Miller.
Love your friend, Josie Brown.
When my family moved from that home to a bigger one, we’d packed and cleaned it out and were already moved into the new place when I’d remembered one box I’d forgotten to pack in the move.
I raced back to the old house and shoveled and dug on my hands and knees for hours into the night in the mound of dirt in the corner of the yard where I’d laid Josie’s brown box to rest so many years before.
I never found her.
The angels had beat me to it, and Josie was no longer alone.
I know I will meet up with her again someday, and like old times, we will talk of tornadoes and Christmases once again.
Many of you are familiar with what became my last date for Valentine’s Day…
She said she had another date lined up, but now he couldn’t make it. So I mustered the courage at the last minute and asked if she wouldn’t mind spending Valentine’s day dinner with me. I’m single. She’s single. Neither of us had plans nor love interests on nearby horizons, so when she jumped at my invitation, I knew we were gonna be a great match.
She was a little shorter and older than my usual type, but knowing I was dateless and she was available, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend the evening with this beautiful woman. As it turned out, we ended up spending the entire day together. I came by with a morning flower and we sipped fancy coffee together. I also brought some authentic German pastries. She had a beautiful smile, even through the crumbs.
We talked through a few cups about so many things while the time passed, and shared so much of what we had in common. Her eyes were soft, her home immaculate, and her colorful walls were full of life, love and important memories. Particularly fond of her stories of family and friends, she made us both laugh and cry at the same time. She was a wealth of remembrances and nostalgia wrapped up in a pretty little Valentine’s dress for the occasion.
The day wore on into afternoon and I helped her with some things she hadn’t been able to reach, replace nor repair in quite some time. She hadn’t had a man around the house for a few years now so I tried to show off a little by doing chores she couldn’t and getting dirty for tasks she wouldn’t. I rather enjoyed impressing her and she was every shade of thankful. I love that in a woman.
In the car, I’d placed a wrapped box of her favorite See’s candy on her seat as a surprise, and her appreciation was absolutely glowing. Given the month and the day, neither of us seemed very alarmed at the love and care we obviously had for one another. Admittedly, the holiday was a little awkward for both of us in our own ways, but throwing caution to the wind, we warmed up to the idea and I kissed her on the cheek.
I’d chosen a nearby restaurant where we ate by candlelight and talked and laughed about all the other couples in the room. We watched one young couple get engaged right then and there and we both shed happy tears at the sight. I love that in her.
So, with our dreamy Valentine’s Day coming to a close, I drove her home and walked her to her door where we promised we’d see each other again. And I hugged her and kissed her goodnight on the cheek again.
And as she walked in and turned out the light, I said “I had a wonderful time. I’m sorry he couldn’t make it. I miss him too, but I’m glad I could spend this day with you, Mom.”
She smiled. “Me too, Donnie. Thanks for a fun Valentine’s day. Drive home carefully.”
Only a handful of days each year are endowed with such magic you can savor their flavor as if they were cherry picked direct from the pages of the calendar just for you. And for days and years to come, they occasionally fall back into your lap again as a pleasure to rediscover.
Under the shade of a summer afternoon mulberry, it was one of those days.
The brunch menu of cold finger sandwiches, summer fruits and sweet iced tea laid in the shade of our quilted blanket while overhead, the azimuth of the sun foretold the end of summer and a welcome slide into cooler autumn breezes and the ensuing holiday season. It was one of those days creation designed for reminiscing.
Friends since age 12, as of that day we had accumulated over 40 years of stories together and apart, each awaiting its turn to be told as we laughed off one after another in a succession of awful punchlines. Memories of our times being kids fortunately never really fade away. They were formative of who we were to become, and today stood as beacons that even back then, our lives meant something and are now lighthouses that guide us home again.
“Did you ever in a million years think we’d have taken the paths to where we are now?” She choked a little on a toasted tuna with mayonnaise too warmed by the sun but washed it down with the juice of cantaloupe slices. Heidi was always a lady. Well, most of the time. Okay, on occasion.
Our paths we once or twice imagined might lead down a road “together” took some sharp, unexpected turns later in life and had indeed turned out remarkably divergent, but today we were reconverging on a soft patch of tall grass in the park under a celestial summer blue sky. We both had grown into and beyond our middle ages and waistlines so nothing was off limits. Nothing ever was. We were affectionately known as Heffah and Skinny and we helped each other through everything from family problems to girl and boy problems, but mostly the boy problems we later discovered we both shared.
Our banter never left any topic completely narrated before the other jumped in with a better one. We didn’t need to finish. We knew the endings. But the lunch hour was passing quickly as the sun yearned for a final burn before we resigned the late afternoon to the coming sunset and ourselves back to the real world which, for hours, seemed to be wonderfully so far away.
“You know, Donnie, (only a choice few are privileged to still use that name in public,) she concluded, “We chose our own paths but never lost each other.” We made the subtle gestures of tidying to begin packing up our tiny spot on the grass. She was right, of course, but her comment wasn’t the kind you simply abandon simply because lunch was over.
If we had chosen our paths rather than our paths being chosen for us, was an important question for heaven that needed an answer.
We closed another book co-authored by best friends until the next time, hugged, pecked and made our vows for another lunch in a couple weeks. After all, four decades apart would take a lot of lunches in the park to fully digest.
But I left preoccupied by that lingering question as I waved and watched her drive away and thanked God for the reunion.
“Questions For Heaven.” I played the song by Chris Rice teary-eyed as I navigated home. Someday, I’ll meet this incredible lyricist whose music has always inspired my deepest personal reflections.
That night in bed was one of those dark nights when you don’t know whether to roll over and write your thoughts for the morning or think up some quick memory trick to trigger you when you awake to its monumental importance in need of answers.
I fell asleep.
The question Heidi had provoked that afternoon about how and why paths are taken nagged. I’m sure such private questions are not unlike your own in some way– the kind we’ve all asked ourselves while lying on our backs in a park one day at the edge of summer.
I believe the answers to the biggest “whys” of our lives are prepackaged within a future heavenly welcome gift, picked out specially for each of us, adorned in sheets of gold and giant ribbons and bows with tiny notes that read:
“Welcome to Heaven. Before you come and see Me, please open this welcome gift.”
Within, I expect to find for me a set of detailed hand-drawn blueprints.
Turning the pages diagramming the chronology of my life from birth to that day, I have imagined little blue penciled arrows pointing to particular people and events and moments I scarcely recall and at the time, deemed utterly insignificant. The legend at the foot of each page will include the brilliant and brief soul-satisfying descriptions of how my life impacted and was, in turn, impacted and unknowingly intertwined with the lives and destinies of thousands if not millions of others. I expect it will show exact moments and actions of myself upon others and vice versa. The icon faces of all the people I had ever encountered and how each spun his and her own stories on other pages in other wrapped boxes awaiting their arrivals to open and discover for themselves the perfect answers to the questions they took to the grave but are now revealed and settled.
I followed the path up to the great throne room where I would spend my eternity.
“Any more questions?”
“Nope. I just don’t understand why all the lifetime of mystery.”
“The questions, Don, are much less satisfying as the effort you make to answer them. I know you labored hard because you had a lot of those little arrows on your blueprints pointing to others who you helped and who in turn helped you. Each was the beginning of an answer to a question of another and your help was greatly appreciated.
So, come rest now, sit with me. I have sandwiches, fruit, tea, a nice blanket and an endlessly blue summer sky for us to enjoy before She arrives once again to join us.”