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Observations: More than I calculated

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image There is something child-like and wonderful about a happy dog. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Jean Spisak passed away last month and something good left this world with her. Jean worked at The Observer News for 30 years, the last eight of which I had the good fortune of working with her. Jean was a good woman; she was a rock of genuine, kindhearted feelings and sanity in an often insane world. When I would comeinto the office to see her smiling face, I knew that, no matter what, everything was going to be OK.

During her funeral last week her daughter mentioned the words, “child-like”. Jean was already past 70 when I met her but, yes, there was something definitely child-like about her spirit. At the same time, I knew she could be one tough old lady and I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side. I’m certain, however, that even her bad side wasn’t a permanent place.

Her daughter also mentioned finding an obituary for a dog stuck in the pages of her Bible. Jean loved dogs, German Shepherds held a special place in her heart but lately Greyhounds had filled that space as well. She saved a few of them and was passionate about all of them. I think there is something particularly human about someone who can feel so strongly about animals; that the best of humanity is far more fulfilled in such a person.

Two weeks ago I wrote about Christopher Hitchens and this week I’ll share a particularly apt quote from his last book, Mortality. They are the words of a dying man and thus, to me, carry special importance as a result:

If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.

I saw a former co-worker at the funeral, sitting a row ahead of me. I could see the emotion on his face. I saw his clothes that were not anything like his normal attire, a button-down shirt and pants ending with red socks leading into sneakers. Unfortunately, a funeral is not a place where you just rush to someone to say, “Hey, it’s good to see you!”  By the time I left the chapel, he was already at his car.

On the way back to the office, I drove by where he works and saw him again in more typical attire, talking to some customers. Still wearing a suit and tie (not my typical attire), I barged my way to the front of the line of customers waiting, walked up to him, stuck out my hand and told him that I just wanted to say hi and to see how he was doing.

At the funeral, his face was etched and serious. His red socks and sneakers, however, revealed the child that still lived inside of him. I don’t think he has had the easiest life at all times, yet the child survives.

We shook hands and, without taking his eyes off the cash register, he said he was doing just fine. I told him it was good to see him and left. As I drove away, I realized the value of Hitchens’ words — it wasn’t for the benefit of the other person, it was stated as advice for the benefit of the reader. I’m not sure it meant anything to my friend that I stopped by to say hi, but it meant a great deal to me. I fear growing calluses on my heart and cynicism in my soul; I’m afraid that I’m growing up to be someone I don’t like very much. Taking even a moment off my schedule tells me that I’m still capable of decent priorities. It felt good to see my friend right then.

I don’t know how I could have misunderstood Hitchens’ advice on my first reading of it. I don’t know how I could have been so self-centered to think otherwise. I wonder if I’m simply sleeping my way through life these days. And more, I wonder exactly how long I have been sleeping. But as I drove away, I knew Hitchens’ words were right and the difference for me was more than I had calculated.

As the years go by, time has a way of moving faster so I can’t be certain, but I believe I last saw Jean in a local grocery store not all that long ago. She flashed a smile that revealed her child-like spirit as we greeted each other. Had I known it would be the last time I would see her; would I have done something different?  Probably, yes, but I have no idea what that might have been. And that gives me something to think about, something to act on going forward.

The world is not a better place without Jean. I have my own opinion about what happens when people leave this life and I can imagine Jean now, being lovingly welcomed home by family, friends, and many dogs joyously happy to see her, as only dogs can be. Like Jean, a happy dog is the epitome of a child-like spirit, and the thought of that makes me happy.

Godspeed, Jean. Thank you for taking away my senseless worries with your presence. To my friends still here, thank you for making an incalculable difference in my life. It means more than I can ever say.

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