Monday, March 18, 2002

Tribune Tribute

After another growing night of restless fake sleep not even two lattes could clear the buzzing inside my head. While waiting at the most Denver like intersection of St. Paul, the stoplight where Dale Street, Front Street, and Como Avenue all meet, I sat behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, "If you don't believe in God you better be damned sure you are right..."

Now normally I don't like to think of religion that early in the morning if I can help it but for some reason the message plastered on the car in front of me, with some smugly confident righteous intent I'm sure, echoed inside. At another time of the day or in my life the message may have offended me in some way. But in my current state of mind I couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. If there really is an afterlife that depends on how we live our limited life on Earth, those that have spent their entire lives as non-believers are sure to be in for some kind of surprise. Surely rising above the daily grind for some higher purpose is an utmost challenge to the undisciplined.

As the light finally turned from red to green the thought occurred to me that the opposite was just as true. If there really isn't a God those who have based their life actions on some prescribed spiritual code are in for just as much of a surprise. Think of all the energy that could have been expended elsewhere.

One of the last lucid things my Mom proudly said to me was that she always knew that I would be interested in journalism because it ran in her side of the family. The title on my business card says I'm a writer but I'm not quite sure it truly applies but I am now sure that what my Mom was trying to tell me was without a doubt as true as any bumper sticker.

Mom's last surviving brother, Ben, died last week. I didn't really know him that well. My most memorable memory of him was a trip with my Dad and Mom to Ben's home in Russell, Kansas (Bob Dole's town) after I graduated from college with my journalism degree. Ben had told my parents that there was a nearby town with a newspaper for sale. He asked if I might be interested in buying it and running it. My state of mind those days was extremely shaky but it was a dream to be not only a newspaper employee but the GUY, the one that made the decisions on the content. I may not be able to change the world but maybe I could make a very small dent in a very small corner of things.

It turned out that the paper wasn't for sale and looking back maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. I probably wasn't ready for such a big step and can any of you imagine a precursor to the Cheapo newsletter being hoisted upon the conservative residents of some small town in Kansas? But Ben felt bad nonetheless. He didn't realize, probably because I never told him, that his thinking of me for that opportunity meant more than anything in the world. I didn't care that the chance didn't materialize, it was a simple reaching out that inevitably added a few days to my own life.

I really got to know Ben through his regular letters to my Mom. He wrote about his grandchildren, life in Russell, sports and an occasional comment about something political. I loved his writing. Believe me it takes something unique to actually get me to chortle aloud but Ben did it in just about every one of his letters. He had a dry sense of humor that I knew came from a admirable kindred spirit- a man who said very little verbally but could say it all in a few pithy, jotted down thoughts.

I was quite honored when Ben's family asked me to be a pallbearer at the funeral in Tribune, Kansas just inside the Colorado/Kansas border. Last year when I first heard he was ill I tried to think of something I could do to bring a smile or two in a difficult moment. Words failed me. So I sent the picture of me shaking the hand of the Dalai Lama. It was the best I could do. Ben's niece Gail, who he raised as a daughter after his sister Alice died, told me after the funeral he had proudly hung the picture in his living room. She told me that I was special to Ben, which believe me meant ten times more to me than a handshake with one of the world's most holy of men.

Gail asked Ben to write about his siblings and parents so the family history could be passed on. I read some of what he wrote after the service, and the voice was familiar and enlightening. I found out that three of Mom's siblings including Ben were the editors of their high school's newspaper just like I was. I truly cherished the voice of a wonderful writer who wrote humbly yet proudly of his family and his memories. He sacrificed some of his dreams so that those he loved could achieve their own dreams and I can't think of anything more admirable. One of the other pallbearers, an editor of a nearby town newspaper told me that though Ben spent much of his career on the technical side of newspaper production he always wanted to be a reporter and he was a great writer. The most moving part of the funeral service was not the Biblical passages or the soaring version of Ava Maria but rather the poem and words from an interview from his granddaughters. He obviously had taught them well: the love of education and the special meaning of a carefully chosen word. Good-bye Uncle Ben.

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