I hadn't seen him in years.
The last time was....hmmm. About three years ago. At the university where I used to teach part time.
Artie was the custodian there. I have always been mindful about being on good terms with the custodians, secretaries and tech support people at every job I have worked at. I am no fool. These people run the place. I am serious. Most places can live without the rest of us but the custodians, the secretaries and and the tech support? They are the heavy hitters and I know it.
If they like you, life can be pretty good at work.
So, Artie was the night custodian in the building where I taught one night class per week for several years. Little by little, we got to know each other.
He called me Teach.
Artie was a slight man, probably about 5'2 (which is still two inches taller than me.) I always thought that he looked like Walt Whitman's scrawny little brother. He had white hair and a moustache.
And a peacefully zen face. And demeanor.
Once, I asked him what his secret was, why he looked so content and peaceful all of the time. He told me that he tried to always be in the moment. That if he was cleaning an office window, then he tried to make it the cleanest window he could, if he was emptying wastebaskets, he wanted to concentrate on the task at hand.
Also, he told me, he had a happy home life. That helped.
Artie and his wife, Kitty, had been married for nearly 45 years. He told me that they had always wanted children, but weren't able to have any. Finally, they went through an adoption agency and their son, Eddie, was born when they were both 47. They were ecstatic at their luck and Artie always had photos to show me. Eddie was a guitar nut and when he graduated from high school, he re-located to London where he thought the music suited him better. He soon had a steady gig with a rock and roll band. Artie and Kitty went to visit him every Christmas and Kitty would prepare a hugh Christmas dinner in Eddie's tiny kitchen for all the stray band mates who didn't have family to be with. Eddie came home every year for a week in late May to celebrate his mother's birthday.
Artie often talked about how much Eddie loved living in England because he said there was no racism there, that since Eddie was an african american, he had endured lots of it here in the states, but none in England and he planned to live there forever.
Artie and Kitty had only wish and that was that Eddie would find a nice girl, get married and give them a grandchild. Eddie didn't seem in any hurry, though.
Of course, I found this all out in small increments on evenings after my class was over and Artie was cleaning my office while I sat at my desk finishing up work. We went back and forth a lot, sharing our life stories. I don't usually do that sort of thing with people, but I liked Artie and he didn't ask stupid questions.
Plus, he thought Liv was cute and always asked if I had pictures of her.
Artie retired and there was a small cake in the break lounge.
I saw him a few months after that at an Omaha Royals baseball game where I met Kitty and Eddie. I was surprised at Kitty. She was a good head taller than Artie and probably had about fifty pounds on him. Eddie was taller than both of them, a good six footer with a tall gangly musician's body and a smile that was deep and dimpled. A very handsome man. We shook hands all around and I introduced Artie to Liv. She was in kindergarten at the time, I think.
We all said that we would have to get together for dinner, etc. But, like most things you say in moments like that, it just didn't happen.
So, I was very surprised last week when I was eating my lunch alone in the atrium and spotted Artie in there washing windows.
He and I exchanged startled looks, the kind where you stare for a moment and for the life of you cannot place this person. They are out of context and they look so damned familiar, but....how?
And then, of course, you remember.
Artie and I smiled at each other and hugged. Said how surprised we were to see each other. We both said the same thing at the same time: What are you doing here?
I explained that I had taken a predictable job now that Liv was in fourth grade, needed the good insurance.
Artie drew his breath in sharply. "Your daughter is in FOURTH grade?" he exclaimed. "I remember her as this tiny little 5 year old."
Well, I told him. She was nine now....
I asked him why he wasn't staying retired, staying home and watching the grass grow with Kitty as he always planned on doing.
He looked at me for a long moment and then told me that Kitty had died in the Spring.
I did the usual I'm so sorry dance and he thanked me, etc.
He told me that she had died in her sleep, that Eddie had been home visiting for her birthday and that one morning, he and Eddie had gotten up early to go buy some doughnuts for breakfast and when they got back home, they found that Kitty had died.
Eddie had been so upset, had ended up staying nearly all summer to keep his Dad company, worried about him. But, that finally Artie had talked Eddie into returning to England. He had a girlfriend now and it was serious and his band couldn't hold his spot forever. Artie talked about how Eddie's band mates all came to the prairie for Kitty's funeral and how nice he thought that was. How Eddie was now living with his girlfriend and that he would go visit them for Christmas, do the Dickens Christmas, as usual, but sans Kitty.
That would be hard, he said, but he was looking forward to it. Artie said that once Eddie went back to England, the house had just seemed too big, too quiet, so he had decided to go back to work part time and had found work at the hospital.
"It's different," he said. "Germs are a much bigger deal here than they were at the university.."
But, he said, he liked his job. He liked keeping busy.
He asked how Liv was and if I had settled down yet. That had always been a concern of his, he had always told me that I needed to find a lid for my pot.
I told him about Bing, that she was the perfect lid for my unusual pot and that we were all settled and happy.
That made him smile.
We said that we needed to have dinner sometime and this time, I made sure to get his number.
Because I was not going to lose him again, I said.
And I made a mental note to make sure that I didn't. I wanted to invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner.
But, Artie was still Artie. He still smiled warmly and seemed very comfortable in his own skin, like always.
I asked him if he was doing okay, that missing Kitty must be hard.
And he smiled again, gently.
He said, "You know, I do miss her so much. But, I know that I will be fine. And I refuse to be the sort of person who stops living after they lose their spouse. I will just go on by myself until we meet in the sweet by and by."
I like the phrase. The sweet by and by. It sounded just like Artie.
"You are still the most zen man I know," I told him.
He nodded. He talked about his excitement about visiting Eddie and his girlfriend at Christmastime and how he hoped that she could cook since Kitty had been the only one who could cook in their family.
"But," he said. "If she can't, we can all go to a restaurant for Christmas dinner. It only matters that we are together."
I hope that I can be that settled in my skin some day. Because he was so...healthy.
He missed his wife, yes. But, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and was going on.
You see a lot of that in the older generation.
(I do realize that to some of you, I am the older generation..)
I am talking about the older older generation, though. The seventy somethings. I see it time and time again. This wiseness, this comfortablity in themselves.
I aspire to being an Artie one day.
Maybe when I am his age, I will hit the mark.
But, until then, I will just make sure that I don't lose him again. I want him at our Thanksgiving table. I want Liv to have this sort of person in her life. There is so much to learn.
I think I will call him right now and invite him over for dinner. With Christabelle. I think those two would SO hit it off. And how much fun for the rest of us to have two such interesting people to share a meal with...
A keeper, all righty. That is Artie. And Christabelle.