In Memory: Pizza With Rough-Hewn Grace
A large cheese and sausage with mushrooms and green peppers on half. That was the order every Friday. And it had to be from Tilley’s. Pizza Hut was crap! And no matter how hot it was when we opened it, Don’s plate still had to go in the microwave. He liked his food HOT! In his time, he liked hot women, hot cars, hot motorcycles, and boats, too. In his time. Those times were long gone. Don died in September, 3 years ago, at age 77.
The mushrooms and green peppers were for my half of the pizza. Not his. And he always paid for his half of the pizza. Always! Don may have been in poor health, sucking oxygen, sleeping on a hospital bed in his daughter’s living room, not able—or allowed—to drive, selling his beloved home, and mourning his departed wife, but by God no one else was going to pay his half of the pizza! Don paid his own way. Always had. Always would.
Don and I shared a pizza almost every Friday for seven months. I volunteered for Hospice and provided caregiver relief to his daughter and son-in-law and companionship for Don. Don did not want to be baby sat. He reminded me of that on my early visits, but that changed with the first pizza from Tilley’s. He never spoke about being baby sat again. In fact, he thanked me every week, usually with tears in his eyes.
He was a Navy veteran, but somehow we never got to many of his Navy stories. We did talk about other things. Him about the Packers and Brewers. Me about the Bears and White Sox. About our ex-wives—we each had a couple—and how important it was to get along well after divorce. Talked about them just a little. Don, primarily wanted to talk about Jo, his sassy wife who died after thirty-six years of marriage. How she pursued him when they first met, how she put wall paper border on the ceiling, not the top of the wall, how well she could dance. Told me about their motorcycles and the trips they took. The country music they loved. About how much he missed her and wondered when he would get over missing her. I took a photograph of her memorial brick at Riverside Park, installed in front of the band stand. Right where people dance every Friday night at the summer concerts. He agreed that Jo would have loved the location. We agreed she was still dancing on Friday nights.
Several times he asked me to bring her picture over, “Take a good look at her,” he’d order in his coarse voice, “What do you see?”
The photo showed a vivacious red head with a wonderful, warm smile, twinkling eyes, and a face filled with fine lines that radiated joy, but as I was learning, those lines were hard earned from burying two children. It took me a minute to answer. I ached wanting to know her, feel her fingers touch mine.
It’s hard to carve oak. Don was strong, knew who he was and what he thought. He had some splinters, a lot, yet never took the time to be sanded silky smooth. From his hard-scrabble beginnings near the Elroy train tunnel, to working, living and loving in Beloit, he made things happen. Told it like he saw it. Felt it like he felt it. And he had felt a lot. Early teen marriage, quitting high school to join the Navy, a child at age eighteen, another marriage with several children, divorce, then Jo. Whose kids belonged to whom were not important, but burying two of them would have buried anyone else. Instead he bent, twisted and absorbed the pain, and continued onward, maybe not any smoother on the outside, but softer inside.
We didn’t talk much about religion or God. Don knew anger and knew regret, knew he hadn’t always been right, but seemed to have replaced that anger and regret with a sense of forgiveness toward others, towards himself, and to have accepted it from God. No, Don wasn’t religious, but he did know love and from whom it originated. More importantly, Don knew grace. Knew that it isn’t always smooth and pretty, but gritty, with splinters. True grace. Rough-hewn grace.
I still miss our Friday nights together.
Tilley’s pizza was OK. There’s better in town, and Don was right, it beat Pizza Hut.
But it is him I miss. A lot.