I consider myself a really lucky guy. In my career I've had the opportunity to write all kinds of things, most of them silly, and writing them has usually been fun. But every now and then I have had to put the silliness aside and say goodbye to a friend.
Just a little over seventeen years ago our family threw all our stuff in boxes, threw the boxes in a truck, and headed up the road from Ann Arbor to move into a house on the shores of Whitmore Lake. The house came with nice carpeting, a great view of the water, and a neighbor named Harold Lemon.
Harold was about 75 years old when I first met him. He was hobbling around his back yard with a cane, and in our first conversation he told me that he was just about to go in to have a hip replaced. My impression was, "Wow, what a nice old guy. He's just a little bit older than my dad would be if he was alive. I guess it's gonna be pretty quiet next door."
When Harold came out of the hospital with his new hip, I began to discover what the man was all about. Instead of complaining about the food in the hospital, he winked and told me how pretty his nurse was. Instead of griping about the pain, he marveled at the technology that could put a new joint in his worn-out hip. The doctors had given him a walker with tennis balls on the legs, a contraption that he was supposed to lean on for six months. He ditched it in a week and in less than a month he was out on the golf course.
And so began one of the best relationships of my life.
There is a lot to know about maintaining a little patch of lakefront, and I had every bit of it to learn. You have to know about building docks, and maintaining seawalls, and repairing yard pumps, and tying up boats, and raking seaweed, and which way the wind should be blowing before you set fire to the brush pile. You also have to know when it's time to sip a cup of coffee on the deck and watch the swans glide by, or the perfect moment to crack open the first beer on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Harold knew all these things, and he was willing to become my surrogate dad and share his knowledge with me. He had a knack of sounding incredibly gracious and offhand in gently suggesting that I might not want to hop in the water with a live power cord in my hand.
One morning, while we were sipping our coffee and watching the swans, Harold suggested that he and I become partners in buying a pontoon boat. Up to that moment I had thought that to own a pontoon boat I would have to wear polyester pants belted just under my armpits and have the phone number of my proctologist on speed dial. Wrong again.
Harold found us the perfect party barge, and we bought it at the perfect price. We spent the winter working together to restore it, he and I splitting up the work into tasks for which each of us was best suited. Harold tweaked the engine, updated the wiring, and restored the furniture on deck with beautifully handcrafted oak woodwork. I got the radio working and scraped the dried-up crud off the pontoons; I honestly don't think I've ever enjoyed myself more.
I could probably fill a book with stories about Harold. Maybe someday I will. I could talk about the time he showed me the plans, sketched on the back of an envelope, for the walnut entertainment center he was going to build that winter. About us both pretending that I had anything useful to contribute to the conversation. About watching him mill the boards he was going to use to build it, and the jaw-dropping beauty of the final piece, with its inlays and hand-carved floral work.
Or I could talk about all the little schemes he and I cooked up that didn't really work out all that well, like the time the two of us figured out a new and innovative method of installing the dock, carrying sections down the ones we had already installed. It worked too, keeping us warm, dry, and happy - for a while. The neighbors still talk about the sight of Harold and I slowly and majestically riding our half-built dock into the drink.
Now Harold is gone, off to the next great adventure. He was 92 years old and his health has been going downhill drastically for a while. It's been a couple of years since he could crank up his tools and produce one of his woodworking masterpieces. His amazing wife Donna had gone on ahead of him; that was another tough goodbye I had to write.
You know, it's easy at a time like this to say things like, "He had a good life," or, "At least he isn't suffering any more," or, "He was ready." And I guess all those things would pretty much be true.
That doesn't really approach the reality of losing someone like Harold, though. For as long as I live, every time I see something I don't understand happening on the lake, or run up against something I don't know how to do, or whenever I just feel like learning a few things with a nice cold bottle of Killian's Irish Red in my hand, my first inclination will be to call Harold.
Instead, I'll just have to heave a sigh and try to figure all it out on my own. But I along with that sigh I get to enjoy a little smile at the memory of the things I learned from Harold, and the things he and I learned together, and all the fun we had in the process.
Like I said, I consider myself a really lucky guy.