Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Frank and the afterlife

I was walking to the back room to kiss Lori goodnight when the phone rang. It was a friend of ours, and as they chatted away I stooped and kissed the top of her head. She scribbled a note and handed it to me. It read, “Frank Fisher died Friday night.”

I read the note and set it carefully on the desk, as if it were fragile and might shatter. Her eyes were on me but I couldn’t look back.

There wasn’t a lot to say. I slipped outside and stood looking to the west, still light from the sunset, and thought of how I’d intended on taking Frank a book to read. He always enjoyed my writing, and my companionship, and I thought it would make a welcome diversion for the long hours spent bedridden at the nursing home. Dusk was settling in. The crescent moon took on a luminance that grew with each heartbeat. If I felt anything other than a sense of loss it was anger toward myself, with a touch of revulsion thrown in for good measure. When will I learn? I asked. There was no reply within or without. The silence was answer enough.
Frank Fisher entered my life one afternoon when I worked at a small newspaper in Waterville. I was up to my eyeballs in deadline stress when he walked through the door and announced himself. He was tall and lanky and folded himself into a chair. His grin was infectious. “I hear you like birds,” he said. “I do, too.”

The two of us tested my editor’s patience as we got to know one another. Frank was curious about the Christmas bird counts I’d been arranging and wanted to know how we conducted them. Did we stop by his yard? The ponderosa pines were good habitat for nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers, he said, and he made me promise to drop by next December.

He had seen a cougar south of Barnes on some land he hunted. It was my impression that Frank told everyone he met about the cougar. It crossed the road right in front of him. He got a good look at it, good enough that it didn’t matter that the Parks and Wildlife people denied their existence. “I know what I saw,” he said. I never doubted him.

After that, we ran into each other occasionally and always spent a few minutes talking. Our interests were mostly similar except that his favorite pastime was taking a shotgun to wild turkeys and I preferred watching them. At odd hours Frank would call to ask for help identifying a new bird in his yard. He had a good eye and a talent for description and it was usually pretty easy. Frank was unfailingly polite and thanked me each time. I came to look forward to his calls.

He was a councilman at the time, and I covered his last meeting. After being diagnosed with bone cancer, declining health forced him out of politics. He’d given Waterville 46 years of his life, serving in every capacity possible. When we sat down for an interview, he confided that his favorite career had been that of a crossing guard. It was part of his duties as a law enforcement officer, which admittedly were pretty tame. If he needed backup he’d call home and tell Lonnie. Lonnie would be deputized on the spot and together they’d handle the situation.

Frank and his wife Marjorie had four boys—Dennis, Steven, Terry and Lonnie—but it was Lonnie whom he spoke the most of. Lonnie passed away the year before I met Frank, and the loss was still grievous.

Last January Lori saw Frank in the nursing home. When she told me, I immediately made plans to visit him. Weeks passed without me making a move. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see Frank; I didn’t want to go to the nursing home.

He called one night and left a message. Guilt got the better of me and I called him back. “I’ll be over Friday,” I said.

Frank had changed a lot since I’d quit the newspaper. He was almost a skeleton, but his eyes lit up when I knocked on the door. “Be sure and sign my register,” he said, handing me a notebook.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect his attitude. As an avid outdoorsman who loved nothing more than hunting or fishing, finding himself flat on his back in a small room—a one-way ticket with no hope of escape—must have been nightmarishly restrictive. And yet he always expressed gratitude for the view out the window. His room faced east across an expanse of grass dropping down to Gypsum Street, where a broad pasture beyond ended in a ragged border of trees fronting Juganine Creek. He told me of seeing a turkey once step from the woods and strut across the pasture, his voice wild with a childish delight, though his body was hollowed out, his facial features bony and sharp.

There were three birdfeeders outside, and we’d discuss the various species. “Is that a purple finch?” he’d ask, and I’d say no, it’s a house finch. He’d nod and say, “I get them mixed up.”

For the umpteenth time I’d remind him of the field marks distinguishing the two, and he’d nod and say, “I sure love watching birds.”

I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t let my fear of the nursing home keep me from being the kind of friend I wanted to be. My goal was to visit him once a week. It didn’t happen. My visits were random at best. A copy of my book sat in the living room, waiting for my next visit. Then came the call.

I’m not a big believer in an afterlife, but as I stood there in the fading light I had a vision of Frank and Lonnie relaxing by the side of a lake, the waters lapping gently against a sandy shore. They’re laughing. While they wait for the others, Frank flicks his rod and sends a lure spinning through the air, sunlight refracting off its mirrored surface, and as it sails higher and farther the line peels off the reel with a hiss and their conversation stalls. They watch it, almost breathlessly, and in that silent place with only birdsong and the drone of insects a peace descends like no other peace, a contentment, a serenity, a holiness. The lure hits the water with a quiet splash. Lonnie pats his father on the shoulder. “Nice cast,” Lonnie says. Frank gives him a big grin, a Frank grin, a grin that spreads clear across his face and touches his ears, and as he cranks the handle the bail snaps shut with a solid click and he says, “It’s good to be home.”


cheryl said...

Beautiful piece, Tom. You bring Frank to us in a warm and personal way.

You choose your words with such care, yet those words always come together with such a natural ease.

All of your pieces are strong, but these eulogies are especially moving and powerful-- and are a gift to the family and the community.

cheryl said...

You write like I wanna write. I ordered your book today and am looking forward to its arrival.

Laurel Johnson said...

Your thoughts on Frank were wonderfully wrought as usual, Tom. The downside of living in a small town is watching once-vital friends die.

I knew Frank Fisher well, from my days as a nurse and CPR instructor at CMH. His contributions to Marshall County and Blue Rapids were many and varied. Thank you for your touching tribute.

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