I called him, "Buddyyyy Bradddd". Those big blue eyes of his always greeted me whenever I was home off the boat.
I had moved into a community where people are "self-contained", to quote a local priest. This is a small town where close family ties are like none other. As a matter of fact, the CBS Sunday Morning program did a show about how the folks in this town grow up, stay here and raise their families. Very few people move away, and a lot of times, those who move in, can be viewed with suspicion and may always be considered an outsider, no matter how long they stay. It's self-preservation, which is not a bad thing at all in this fast-changing world.
I was born and raised on the bayou, "North of I-10", about two hours from here, a confirmed bachelor, and maybe a li'l rough around the edges, so it was no wonder people had raised eyebrows when I moved into this quiet little neighborhood, where everybody knew everybody else and was most likely kin to most of them. My work on the River had me coming in at strange hours, and when I'm home, I guess I may be a little loud. I've got my bbq pit lit and "the Blues" blaring on the outside speakers. I'm a kinda big guy, and I guess I might sorta 'live large'...I LIVE my "joie de vivre" right out in front of God and everybody. That's just who I am.
Being a bachelor, I never had any kids of my own. When I first met Bradley, he was still a toddler in diapers. Those big blue eyes of his took in everything, even then. He was always curious about what I was doing and as soon as he was old enough to cross our street, and long before he was allowed, he was over here seeing what I was up to. Many's the time his Mama had to come looking for him; knowing he'd probably be here, maybe watching tv with me, eatin' a 'freezy pop', keepin' me company. This little guy was the first person here in town to accept me for ME. No matter what I was doing, whenever I got home, he'd show up and ask, "Hi Mr. Ray, whatcha doing?...where ya been?...how many fish did ya get?" He'd always want to help me with whatever I was doing. If I had caught fish, he had to touch each one, and was just so full of quesitons and truly interested in this crusty old sailor's life. Well, how could ya not love a kid like that? He melted my heart and every time I saw him, I'd say, "Buddyyyy Braddd!" As he grew, he found more ways to help me out and I'd find myself depending on him more than I knew. Still, today, when I'm talking with Peggy on the phone, and something goes awry, first thing that automatically pops outa my mouth is, "Go ask Brad...", then I remember.
The last time I saw him before his accident, I had been picking lemons and had lost my wedding ring under the tree. Just then he showed up with his new little girlfriend to say, "Hi". I can still picture how he dashed back across the street, came back, metal detector in hand and his dad in tow. He dove down under the lemon tree, which has long sharp throrns, and on his hands and knees searched through every blade of grass 'til he jumped up with it shining between his fingers, those big blue eyes smiling. " 'At's my Buddy Brad", I said, giving him a hug and patting his back. If I'd ever had a son, I'd want him to be just like him. I couldn't have loved him more if he hadda been. After he had the car accident, I steeled myself to go visit with him. His parents may have thought I didnt' care, because I just couldn't do it that often. His parents are made of the finest stuff around. They lived with Brad's predicament every day and did it with God's Grace and dignity. I would try to act like myself when I talked with Brad, but then turn on my heel, go back to the house and bawl like a baby for hours, Peggy trying to comfort me. Our town just isn't the same with the loss of him this last month.
This is Peggy now. Well, I moved in, too an outsider, eleven years ago. The very first town person I met was Brad. He was about 12 years old. Cappy was out on the boat for his two week hitch. Bradley was mowing our lawn, helping "Mr. Ray", as usual. Normally this house would be empty 'til Cappy got home, so I thought I'd better step outside and say, "Hi" to this little guy, to let him know somebody was here. I guess I startled him because his eyes widened, his mouth flew open and he ran back across the street. Moments later, his Mom and Dad appeared and finished the lawn work. Poor little guy. I hadn't meant to scare him. His parents introduced themselves to me; Steve and Monica. I knew at once they were very nice people. (And they are much more than that...they are INCREDIBLE people.) Over the years I got to know what a sweet young man their son is. As Cappy mentioned, anytime something would go wrong, Brad would be the first one we'd call. He was always so good-natured and even after he'd graduated from high school, I still thought of him as such a nice young man. The last time I saw him before the car accident, he had driven up alongside our driveway in a shining white Mustang, arm resting on the open window, girlfriend beside him. "Oh Wow!" I thought, "He's all grown up!"...I just didn't know how complete his life was. None of us knew. A couple of days later, early in the morning, he was badly injured in car accident. He fought for these last few years to live...but then last month, his struggle was over.
In the eleven years I've been here, I've lost two uncles. Cappy lost his mother, his grandmother Elder, and his dear Aunt Helen. Foy, a friend of ours from online, whom we've known for years and still haven't been able to cope with the fact that he's gone. Three dear mothers from this town, passed. Mrs. Folse, who was the first lady that I had the opportunity to get to know as a real matriarch of a real South Louisiana family, and who taught me how to eat my first yummy crab. When she passed, it was as thought the major pillar of the family had been removed. Our friend, Sonia's beloved mother, whose family is also so loved by the community, went to be with Loved Ones waiting for her. Sonia's husband, Jude's mother, a grand lady if there ever was one, also passed on into Heaven, where I'm sure she continues her prayers for all of us. (There maybe be more aquaintances whom I knew, who have passed, but am not aware of just now.) These wonderful, God-fearing people had long lives, suffered heartaches and revelled in joy along the way, but whose legacies continue long after them in the lives of their amazing children and loved ones, to mention but a couple of things.
And now we've lost Bradley. But what of his life? Was it too short? Yes, for us it was. But that was his life; those were his days. Although his dreams weren't fulfilled; the college degree in nursing, the future replete with a career, marriage, children, and (smiling) even his brand-new barbeque pit that he had just proudly purchased, where he had perhaps planned on maybe inviting "Mr. Ray" to some of his 'cookin', Brad left an inspiring legacy. He spent the time that he did have observing life, savoring life, smiling, laughing, lending his hands to anyone...filling each day joyfully giving and helping others, and that's what fulfilled him. This is something we can all take away and use in our lives and pass onto others, and thus Brad's legacy will continue to grow.
After Brad's passing, Cappy and I went on vacation to Maine and Nova Scotia. Wherever we went, Cappy told people about the recent loss of "Buddy Brad", the boy who grew into a young Man here in South Louisiana. How he was our ambassador, if you will, to the people here in town, how laughter always followed in his wake (I can still hear his laugh), and of his rare love and desire to always lend a hand. It was the latter of these things, his dedication to helping others that brought him to the final threshhold of his young life. He was a nursing student at Nicholls College. Although he wasn't scheduled to 'go in' that day, he had volunteered to get up around 5 a.m. and drive in to practice some the medical procedures he was learning; drawing blood, I believe. The weather became bad and rainy. His car hydroplaned on a slanted curve and a terrible accident ensued.
Physically, he was never the same. Whenever I saw him, I saw in those beautiful blue eyes that he recognized me and tried desperately, it seemed, to communicate with me. All I could do at times like those was to pray with him. At home I prayed daily and fervently for him. No-one knows what his thoughts were during those, his dark days. No-one knows what his family truly went through, but I personally witnessed his parents, though tried by fire, as it were, persevering, never losing hope, and being held together, bonded by love, family and friends. As in days of old where some of God's people were put in a firey furnace, looking in at Steve and Monica's life during this trying time, we could see The Lord in there Walking with them. The Word says that men's souls are tried by fire. The end result is pure and beautiful. And, too, as extreme pressure over time creates diamonds, Bradley's life and those of his parents and siblings are the very proof of this.
Who knows what God has for Brad in this new Life that he's just begun? As Maggie, one of our neighbors, and others have said, "Now Brad can walk and talk...and fish!" but knowing Brad, it won't be Heaven unless he can be helping Someone. "Hi Lord, where ya been?...Whatcha been doin'?...How many fish did ya get?...Can I help you light the BBQ pit?" And you know Jesus is reflected in those big blue eyes of his....just like Always.