When I started school at age six, my mom thought I could read. She’d been reading the same children’s books to me for years, and I had them all memorized. I could turn the pages and say the right words, so she assumed I’d learned to read, somehow. Which is pretty much how I got through high school, later on. I faked it.
But when my first grade teacher gave me a book I’d never seen, I was lost. I was put in a ‘remedial reading’ class, which made me think I wasn’t as smart as the other kids. Which was probably true. My teacher was a kind, patient lady named Hazel Vater, and by the end of my first grade year she had me reading at a fourth grade level. Which was kind of like a miracle.
Reading, and Mrs. Vater, changed my life. So when she came into my office, many years later, and asked me to autograph my column in the Mason County News, I was astounded. She explained that she was on her way to visit her older brother, who was in his nineties and lived in a nursing home in Houston. She would be with him on his birthday, and he had asked for an autographed copy of my column. She said he couldn’t see well enough to read anymore, but he subscribed to the paper, and had someone read my column to him every week. That was the best compliment I’ve ever received.
After Mrs. Vater left, my wife and I determined to go to Houston to see my oldest fan. But life got in the way, and we weren’t able to go immediately, and a few weeks later we learned that he had passed on. I’ll always regret that I didn’t make time to go see him before it was too late.
One of my heroes was Roy Benevidez, who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. I had planned to try to go meet him for a long time, but never got around to it. Passing through El Campo on my way to hunt geese in November, 1998, I decided it was time. I stopped at a convenience store to ask for a phone book, so I could look him up, and noticed what was on the front page of the local paper on the counter. It was a picture of Roy’s funeral, the week before.
Tim Tebow, in his book This Is The Day, tells a story about a woman named Debbie, whom he met on a flight to Phoenix. The lady’s husband of 19 years had a stroke during the flight, and Tim sat with her and prayed with her, and then went with her to the hospital once they’d landed. He was with her in the waiting room when a doctor came and told her that her husband had died. She was alone in a strange city, far from home, and Tim was doing his best to help, although all he could really do was be there for her, and listen.
While they waited for the news, Debbie told Tim about her husband, Boots. He’d been a Vietnam veteran, and they’d had a good life together. He had stood by her and helped her through her battle with leukemia a few years before. She said they were watching a movie at home a month before the trip, and she had turned to him and said, “Boots, if I haven’t told you lately, thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I appreciate you more than you know. I love you so much.” A month later he was gone.
Last week I learned that a young friend, Koby Smith, was killed in a car accident. Koby was only 33. We were in the fire department together. He was always a happy, friendly young man. It’s hard to believe someone who I remember as being so full of life is now gone.
Roy Zesch grew up in Mason, but lives in San Angelo now. Roy and his wife lost their son, Joshua, last week, also to a car accident. Joshua was only 19. I can’t imagine the sorrow a parent feels at losing a child. I have no idea what to say or do to help. I only know that, right now, the Zesch family is looking back and recalling fond memories with Joshua, being thankful for the ones they have, wishing they had more.
The more time we spend with people, the less valuable each minute together seems to be, until, suddenly, there aren’t any more minutes. After that, each second we had with them becomes precious. We relive those moments over and over, straining to hold each one for as long as we can.
Life is short. None of us has any guarantees. We don’t know how long we have left with those we love. This holiday season, make a point of telling the people in your life how you feel about them. Spend as much time as you can with them. Take every chance to say ‘I love you.’ One day they won’t be around to hear it . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister. Write to him at email@example.com