When my son Colin was about five years old, we took him to the Rose Parade in Portland. He got one of those helium balloons that have a Mickey Mouse head inside a second, larger balloon. Colin loved it, and enjoyed bouncing it around the car and the house, but then we walked outside, he let go, and… off it sailed into the Northwest sky, lost to the winds.
We talked about it a little bit. I didn’t scold him. Accidents happen. He was sad, and crying a bit, and upset that he’d done something so silly as to let go of the string. "Papa," he said to me (for he has always called me Papa), "when I grow up, I’m going to have a job where I go around and collect all the lost balloons, and take them back to the kids who lost them."
I don’t tell many "little children" stories — too much W.C. Fields in me, believing that children and dogs should be offered in small doses. But today I’d love to be five years old again, with dreams of doing something great for people; something big and nice and sweet, without being held back by an adult explaining why you can’t do it. Here’s why…
A month ago, my friend Krisy Dykes died of a brain tumor. Kristy was a writer, and a very nice person, always opening her emails with the same words: "Greetings from sunny Florida!" Late in her career, she called me and asked if I could help her. As it turns out, I couldn’t. Not very much, anyway. But I always appreciated her positive, joyful spirit, and her willingness to be an ambassador for Christian writing.
Then last night, I got a call from someone. An author I represent, Karen Harter, is in the hospital suffering with the late stages of cancer. They don’t expect her to last more than another day or two. Karen is a fabulous writer. Her first novel, Where Mercy Flows, won the Christy Award as Christian Novel of the Year, and her second, Autumn Blue, was both a RITA finalist and an ACFW Book of the Year finalist. Karen has the gift — Readers Digest likened her work to Anne Rivers Siddons. All of us expected her to be a star in the industry someday, then this evil disease hit.
And now one of my best friends in the world, Mike Swickard, is fighting it. Mike has cancer everywhere — he’s been fighting it for years, and all they’re really doing now is helping him get a handle on the pain, and he is just trying to fight it off so that he can make his daughter’s wedding on Friday night.
Mike and I go way back. We went to the same church, sang in the same group, graduated from the same high school. We used to go backpacking, had plenty of scrapes together, nearly got arrested one time by a small-town deputy with an oversized need to be in charge. I was in Mike and Heidi’s wedding. Mike was always the strongest guy I knew, and it pains me to see him beat down by this.
When I got the call last night, from someone at the church who needed to give me the update about Karen, I was struck by all the things that were left unsaid. I needed to tell her again how much I enjoyed her work, and what a great influence her writing was going to have on others, and how much I have enjoyed knowing her and talking about words. And now it’s too late.
So I called Mike and talked with him. I just wanted him to know how much he meant to me, and that I had appreciated his friendship, and that after my father died, he was one of the guys I turned to in order to figure out how to be a man. And that the world will be a smaller place when he leaves.
We’re not the same, Mike and I. He’s a welder, and knows everything there is to know about cars, and can take a 1952 Plymouth and restore it to pristine condition. I can do none of those things — it was always my job to hand him the tools and nod a lot, pretending I knew what he was talking about when he’d use a word like "tappet" or "rig reamer." I didn’t know then; I still don’t. But I’m glad to know Mike’s down time has made him a huge reader, and he always had an agile mind, so we can talk books and ideas without either of us feeling self-conscious.
Look… I don’t offer that many life lessons. I guess I figure I have too many questions as it is, so the last thing I need to do is to tell somebody else how to live his or her life. But hear me on this: If I had a chance to go around and collect all the lost helium balloons so that I could return them to sad little boys, I’d do it today. I don’t. However, I have plenty of people who I know and love, and I can tell them know how much I appreciate them, so that neither of us leaves the world feeling regret over things undone. It’s my chance to do something big and nice and sweet.
My thanks to Kristy and Karen and Mike for their wonderful friendship. I have appreciated you each for your unique gifts. Be at peace.
UPDATE: Award-winning author Karen Harter passed away in the wee hours this morning. Her husband Jeff was by her side, and she was surrounded by family and friends. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.
UPDATE: My friend Mike Swickard, the Strongest Man in the World, passed away while I was traveling. The world is a lesser place with his passing. Rest in peace, Mike. I will always remember you.