Remembering a Friend ...
By Greg Payne
I've had writer's block for the past couple of weeks. At other times when that's happened I have a difficult time pinpointing the reason, but I'm clear what the cause is in this case. It's name is Chuck and he passed away last month. Until I say a few words for him, writing about the blarney of local, state and national politics just isn't going to happen.
When I was on the Council, Chuck was a constituent and one of those volunteer neighborhood activists in our city that simply wants their little corner of the world to be everything it ought to. I first met him about three years ago at a neighborhood gathering. By and large, neighborhood meetings are pretty tame—even boring—affairs, which is why most councilors send staff to attend. But this wasn't one of those meetings.
This particular set of residents felt APD wasn't doing enough to respond to crime concerns in their area so they called an emergency session that 50 other irate residents attended. As a city official with some ability to address their problems, their anger was directed full-bore at me. Chuck, in particular, let loose about inordinate response times, drag racing and boom boxes, lack of police presence, teenagers smoking dope in the local park, the inability to reach anyone on the 242-COPS number, and so on.
Not only was Chuck's frustration intimidating, but he was intimidating. Chuck reminded me of some of the crusty old boatswain's mates I encountered in the Navy—hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-fighting. Although in his early 60s, he stood a little over six feet and weighed almost three hundred pounds—literally, a big bear of a man that you didn't want to mess with.
Eventually things calmed down and, after the meeting, Chuck approached. I didn't know what to expect but he thanked me for showing up and apologized for being so fired-up. From that, a relationship developed.
The neighborhood association decided that some of the problems in their area could be alleviated with speed humps so we went to war with the city's traffic engineer and won. Chuck, in particular, refused to accept another "no" from the city bureaucracy. He brought the same bullheadedness to getting improvements for the local park and in keeping the neighborhood watch alive.
When I wasn't seeing Chuck at one of those neighborhood meetings, he would e-mail me or we'd talk on the phone. He would chide me when he didn't like a Council action (like the restaurant smoking ban), offer advice (he was always in favor of keeping things stirred-up), tell me what was going on in the neighborhood, and I told him to quit smoking.
When my term came to an end, Chuck organized the neighborhood association and planted a tree in their park in my honor as a way of saying thanks. It was one of those simple acts that sticks with a person. In my mind's eye, I can still see Chuck—burly and robust—on a sunny afternoon last Fall, giving my wife a hug and lifting my son up in the air.
A few months later I got word that Chuck was sick with leukemia. When we went over to visit he was almost a hundred pounds lighter and haggard. He didn't get out of his recliner but put on a brave face. We talked about his chemotherapy and I predicted he would be around for a long, long time to come. He said he'd just like to make it to his 65th birthday in May.
It wasn't too long before Chuck called from the hospice of the VA hospital. When I walked into his room, he was sleeping and I wasn't sure if he was still alive or not. He was and, after a little joking around, I wheeled him downstairs because he wanted to smoke outside.
I returned later that night with my family in tow and stayed until our one-and-a-half -year-old became too much of a handful for a hospital. As we were leaving, I gave Chuck a hug. He said, "I love you."
If I'd known that was going to be the last time I would see him I would have stayed a little longer, hugged him a little harder. I wouldn't have felt awkward. I would have looked him in the eye and said, "I love you, too, and I'll miss you." But I thought there would be more time and mumbled something stupid, trying to be funny—trying to keep things light. Trying to avoid the eventuality of my own mortality as he was confronting his.
On the way home I knew I hadn't done well and told my wife. She said, "I know, honey. But he knows you love him." I hope so. Chuck passed away a couple of days later as dawn was getting ready to break and the rest of the city was preparing for morning.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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