True Celebrity

The best thing that happened to me at South Central Yearly Meeting (of which I am not a member) was encountering a happy man in a blue shirt and overalls with red galluses that Saturday afternoon in April. How old was he? Fifty? Sixty? An ordinary kind of guy, he had white hair, but he seemed more like 45, to tell the truth—younger than most grown-up people ever get to be, at any rate.

There I was, walking cheerfully away from the table to stack my dishes when this big man rushes up to me and says with a glad smile, "Hey, I hear you’re a poet."

I admitted it. "Yes, I am."

"Me too. My name is Jerry Green-Ellison. I hope we have a chance to talk to each other later on. Can I read some of your work? Did you bring any poems with you?"

I said yes to that too. "A couple of my books are on the arts display table. How about you? Did you bring any poems? I’d like to read yours."

"I can send you some if you have e-mail, but all I brought this time for the art show is photos. I take pictures. They’re over there on the table, where my wife is putting out hers. Katherine’s a photographer too. Come look."

In the face of such generous and immediate delight as Jerry was evincing, I walked (cheerfully) with him over to the table where his black-and-whites were lined up. Very attractive work, I thought, not fancifully pretty—pretty doesn’t cut it with me—but imaginatively realistic, or, in other words, seriously beautiful. I was very much taken with them. I told him so, and that I especially liked a casually evocative photo of a stone well and a bucket, misted hills in the distance on a rainy morning. "Because it’s alive," I told him. "And it gives back a sense of what’s human." I wanted to buy it, but the photographs didn’t appear to be for sale. Jerry, meanwhile, walked over to the other table and bought both of my books.

Like his eyes, bright under heavy eyebrows, Jerry’s face was alive too, as if there were some essential joy underlying every moment. His apparent happiness even made me feel I had a share in causing it, as if I were truly known, and knew him well. Later on when we had our conversation, he and I and another poet enjoyed, for two hours, the kind of talk poets talk. But Jerry was different from others I’ve talked with—as far from the show-offy, cool types as he was from the self-pitying or self-congratulating performing aces. He was unabashedly enthusiastic about the moments that yielded poems and about the delight to be found in the act of writing—no false modesty, no embarrassment about the intensity of what he felt about poetry, and warmly appreciative of the work of our contemporaries. I’ve met poets I’ve cared for before and a fair number of heavy-duty Quakers with impressive gifts. What struck me about Jerry was that he was totally without pretension, absolutely there, present to the moment as exactly who he was—nothing less, nothing more. An ordinary guy.

We exchanged e-mail addresses, all three of us, and, soon after, his poems began to appear on my screen every week, and I started sending some of mine to him. That was April and early May.

Then an unexpected hiatus occurred. I wondered why. He seemed a man who was 100 percent reliable about following through on what he’d agreed to take on. Had he and Katherine gone on vacation and neglected to tell his friends? Had something happened to him, to his life?

Something indeed had happened. After I’d missed hearing from him for a while, I received a letter from Katherine explaining the trouble. She wrote that Jerry had come home from work one Friday in early June with the disturbing news that he’d been suffering from dizzy spells and nausea for about a month. He had difficulty seeing. Over the next three weeks Katherine kept all of their friends informed, myself included, concerning a slow and terrible recognition that Jerry’s illness was cancer—cancer far advanced in his lungs, his heart, and his brain. He declined all treatment.

I was stunned by Katherine’s initial letter, and during the days following I held in the light my new friend and his wife. I had from the first felt happy to have found in the world once more a humorous, serious, genial, honest human being alight with generosity of spirit. And riddled with cancer. Already I began to mourn his loss, though he was clearly still with us. And is. I thought of Jerry and Katherine every day, and I wept a little every day, mildly surprised to find myself deeply affected by someone I’d known for so short a time—a little more than two hours and a few e-mails.

The rest of the story is where the happiness came in, not a miraculous cure but the next best thing—an outpouring of love, as might have been expected, but also, and surprisingly, jubilation. After the first weeks were past, friends of Jerry and Katherine invited people who knew them to come to what they called a "Celebration of Jerry’s Life," a party to be held in Tyler, Texas, on a Saturday afternoon in July.

What a great idea! Not to save all the myriad loving remembrances and appreciations for a funeral when the living spirit would no longer be there to receive them, but to make known to him the meaning of his life to everyone who knew him. And I had been invited. I wanted to be there.

I had to seriously modify travel plans. I was ten minutes late, having been on the road for 250 miles before turning east for 125 miles away from the direction I was supposed to be headed. In the borrowed Unitarian church, the hallway leading to the large meeting place in back was lined with Jerry’s photos. When I opened the door to join the party I saw a room jammed with well-wishers. The only seats left were, as usual, up front. But I’m not shy. I walked forward and sat down in the front row, close to Jerry, who smiled his greeting.

A friend was reading some of Jerry’s poems from a sheet distributed to each person present. Once in a while the friend’s voice cracked with tears. Then he’d stop until he could take up the reading again. Beside him sat Katherine, listening, and beside her, Jerry, relaxed and at ease in an armchair, looking pale (truth to tell), and worn out, yet at peace, and near him another friend, Joyce, who seemed to be running the show. The walls carried more of the luminous photographs I’d first seen at SCYM. I couldn’t look though—I was listening too hard.

The poems being done, Joyce got out of her chair to start the next phase. And that’s when Jerry interrupted. "I’d like all these friends of ours to know each other," he said. "Let’s do introductions." So that’s what we did next, each one speaking a little or a lot about how they came to know Katherine and him.

After that, from among those assembled, one friend after another rose to speak or sing or read something they’d made, and I was one of those who did, since I had written a poem about Jerry soon after I’d met him. The president of the Texas Poetry Society spoke warmly of his friendship. Jerry’s father-in-law said he thought he’d known his son-in-law well for years, but coming to this gathering he felt he’d scarcely known him at all, so various and rich were the appreciations spoken. Katherine’s mother read a short piece about how she and her husband had always wished for the right husband for their cherished daughter, and how glad they were that the two had found each other. A cousin reported that Katherine had first spotted Jerry at a party in their house, and had made a beeline from the chili straight for him and never looked back. Someone from the poetry group spoke of Jerry’s slight stammer, which never impeded the poetry he offered but rather, in a way, contributed to its meaning. A woman who learned photography from him gave him a handmade testimonial booklet telling what he had taught her to look for and how he taught her to see. The person sitting nearest to me presented a collage she’d made that featured, top left, two furry eyebrows, elflike, just the shape of Jerry’s, she explained, and everybody laughed because they looked so right. Much to my amazement and pleasure she also had included the poem I’d written about him, as well as picture cutouts depicting the kinds of things Jerry would do. Members of a spirituality group mentioned Jerry’s tenderness, insight, and originality. A young woman sang a song to him. We kept up the celebration for two hours or more, before we adjourned to the refreshment part of the party, and began to do what Jerry had asked of us: become known to one another.

Before I left, I went over to him once more where he was sitting among friends. I asked him how I could get hold of a copy of that photograph I’d responded to so deeply, and he got up out of his chair, walked over to it, and handed it to me. I was overcome. I had never expected such a gift, such a vital and expressive remembrance. I thanked him, and I said how sorry I was I had not known him much longer than a couple of hours, that we still had so much to say to one another, so much to give and receive.

"It’s OK," he said. "I’ve known you a long time. I think I’ve known you from the beginning." That was when the tears started to fill my eyes. All there was left to say was "Goodbye."

Phyllis Hoge

Phyllis Hoge is a member of Albuquerque (N.Mex.) Meeting. She taught poetry and literature for 20 years at University of Hawaii, where she was a member of Honolulu Meeting. She has published seven books of poetry under the name of Phyllis Hoge Thompson, the most recent of which is Letters from Jian Hui and Other Poems.