The first time I met Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin, my hands trembled and my heart fluttered. I had heard of his gruffness, his stubbornness, and his old-fashioned views. I winced a couple of times at the dinner table, remaining mute, holding my tongue, looking down at my plate. His flan redeemed him to a large extent; his flan, and the warm light cast his way from the other side of the table, where the love of his life traditionally sat.
Over the five years that I’ve known Jay, I’ve had to hold my tongue a few more times. He and I have strongly held and wildly different views of many things, but we share a love of the people in our lives, a sense of loyalty and determination, and a tender regard for each other.
Today I visited my favorite curmudgeon at The Sweet Life, a place where we spent many hours together or tag-teaming — along with his children, Jim and Virginia — during his wife’s last illness. We sat in the hallway, he in a wheelchair with oxygen, me in a comfortable chair somewhat lower than his knees, a posture which allowed him to smile on me and gently touch my hand. We talked about his plan for his last months, about the love he has for his children, and the gratitude he felt for the decent way that everyone is treating him as the cancer takes its toll.
After an hour, he had grown tired. We moved into his room, and I settled him on his bed with the television turned low. I leaned down, kissed his strong face along the lean line of his cheek, and promised that I would return tomorrow. I told him that I love him; and he responded that he loved me as well. As I left, a facility doctor moved into my place beside his bed and started the mildly invasive process of questioning Jay as to the reason for his presence in their facility.
I called him later, after he had slept, and visited with his son, and eaten his evening meal. His voice seemed more clear than it had after our visit. His fatigue comes in waves, he says; sometimes he feels quite well, other times, he knows that his strength ebbs. But my favorite curmudgeon still squares his shoulders, and flirts with the pretty women, and still gazes on the face of his beloved Joanna, present in spirit and in a photograph taken a few hallways from where he now sleeps.