Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Guess what Tim Martin gave me for my birthday.

Soon after I met my best friend Alexa in college, she told me that I needed to meet her dad. You two will get a kick out of each other, she said--or something akin to it. She would talk like that. Get a kick out of. Or she'd call me a toad when I was being punchy. 

In the twenty years since she predicted how he and I would react to each other, I have come to learn more fully what she meant--far more than she or I ever could have imagined. My dad would have died only a few years before I met her or her father. (Her mother is extremely dear to me, too, but the focus of this essay will primarily feature Tim Martin.)

Early on, I learned that Alexa's father read all of the time. For his birthday or Father's Day, she and I went to a bookstore and she found him a tree identification book. Tim Martin will like this, she said. He likes to know what he's looking at. 

She always referred to him by his full name in conversation, and sometimes in the presence of him--though, if she used his full name, it meant to warn him about his toes being awfully close to the line--typically due to a joke he'd told to rile her up (something poking at her feminism or liberal ways . . . which were, from his point of view, new developments but, from my point of view, simply part of who she was).

Later, I would learn that this was a habit she'd picked up from her mother. Both affectionally calling people toads if they were behaving in a silly way bordering on rude or calling a person by their full name (with simultaneous eyebrow raising and wide eyes) to warn someone of their nearness to a personally-created catastrophe.

Alexa told me how he often visited the library, and that she used to go with him often. She told me of their debates. That I'd have to watch myself. That he'd be liable to get going if I started getting going (in our political talk and our embedded points of view--he on his end, me on mine on a teeter totter that would seemingly put one of us always in the air, and the other firmly on the ground and glaring up at the other).

Of course, because I loved her I would love her family. I didn't know that then. But it happened quickly and I've never let go. 

A few years later, she learned she had pulmonary hypertension--a fatal disease that can be mediated by treatment but not cured. She told me via a Valentine's Day card that came to my apartment 1,000 miles away; by then, I was in Texas at grad school, and she was married and in grad school at our alma mater. She told me not to worry and not to look the disease up on the internet. She said there wasn't a cure but that thirteen years more of living was a good bet. She didn't say bet. I don't know if she said thirteen years, but I read that number somewhere because it's engraved in my memory. First in my hopes. My dreams. My whatever-it-is you have when you need to find a cure for a disease before that number happens--even though you aren't a doctor or scientist and it will take that amount of time to become a doctor or scientist, and even longer, to become the sort of scientist who discovers a way to stop a specific death in its tracks--freeze it until it thaws at the same rate as everyone else's. 

It wasn't thirteen years, though. 

Wrong number.

Maybe that number was not from the time of diagnosis.

Maybe she'd already lived twice as long as anyone would if anyone had suspected long before anyone did--but no one did.

She had twin daughters. They were babies at my wedding. They were three years old at her visitation, pretending to be cats on the playground where I took them for a while, in view of the church and the parking lot of mourners but at least outside with the blue sky--how goddamned blue that sky was. A bright, sunny day. I remember the heat on the black sweater dress I'd bought. Short sleeved, but the thickness of the yarn held the heat.

I stayed at her parents' house during that early grieving time. She'd moved back in with them due to the disease--how erratic, unreasonable, unpredictable. And her with a husband and twin toddlers. I was in the house while phone calls were made, relatives gathered at the table, the rituals were laid and the stream of food and visits began. All of it was familiar, having witnessed my own version of it when my father died. The plant deliveries. The unexpected faces of those you otherwise would not have seen for months, perhaps it had already been years.

I imagined that her other friends--friends who'd known her far longer than I had--thought I was a jerk to stay at her parents' house, where she herself had been alive only days before. Couldn't I have stayed at my mom's house and driven the two hours, or booked a hotel? I was intruding on a family's grief. Voyeur. 

Of course, no one ever said so. No one hinted at it. This was my fear, my insecurity, my worry. The authenticity of a friendship seems to waver when one of the friends is no longer present to verify it.

In the years since Alexa's death, her father Tim Martin and I have talked regularly over the phone. When my sister died, I flew back and Tim Martin picked me up from the airport and drove me to my mother. Seven years later, my second story collection was published and I flew home for the first time since my sister's death, Tim Martin picked me up from the airport. Later, we would sit in the backyard at night, talking to a fire like he and Alexa used to, like he and Alexa and I once did.  

We are not like a father and daughter, but our friendship is welded by the daughter-shaped hole and father-shaped hole broken so deeply through the layers of us--and our friendship does a little to let those holes be visible. While I run at night or drive home from work, I talk through my headphones to him. He asks if I'm wearing my reflective vest. I ask how the heart-doctor appointment went. We argue about politics. We ask each other why we think what we do. We talk about Alexa's twins. How they are now. In college now, with faces like hers, walking the same campus where she and I met. He asks about my mom. I ask about his. He tells me he listened to this week's episode of Wake to Words and Brew Some Coffee. He says I looked well. He says if I don't. He asks why. Sometimes we talk about Alexa or my dad. More often we don't. We save that for the anniversaries, like anybody else. It's too much otherwise. You know what I mean, if you do. 

When Alexa's brother died, which is its own terrible story, Tim took over the machine shop that Alexa's brother had started. This was a few years ago. Alexa was always worried about her father working too much, being gone too much (travel often took him away for weeks, months--when 9/11 happened, he was in that region . . . the relief when he'd called home, alive). He still works too much, but he's in one place, and it's his son's place, and he loves what he does. He welds, he creates, he fixes problems, he talks to old friends and longtime customers (interchangeable as they are). He learns new machines, teaches himself how to make a tool as part of a solution to something else. He teaches the young men in his employ--advises, mentors. But mostly he's alone, in his head, in his shop. Thinking, working, and in the zone where taxes, time, and death do not exist. That zen space. 

We've now come to what I've wanted to share with you. 

I received my birthday present from Tim Martin. I never used to get one, but in recent years, he has begun sending me a present related to whatever he's working on at the shop at the time of my birthday. The package arrived today. At first, I walked right past it--after work, after returning from a jaunt from one bookstore to another, after dropping the child off for dinner with his own dad, after making dinner for my partner and me. And then I finally stopped. And approached it. My son had asked what it was I'd ordered. I don't know, I'd said, waving away the time it would take to think about it. But now I read the shipping label. More than once, a package arrives that belongs next door. But no. This was to me. Erin Pringle. And it was from Tim Martin.

So I opened it. 

Guess what Tim Martin gave me for my birthday. 

I am absolutely delighted.

I'd like to show you this perfect present that he made while learning a new machine.

Can you guess?

He welded a sign for me--my own special plaque, and it says Wake to Words . . . and Brew Some Coffee.

Alexa was right. Her best friend and her father would get a kick out of each other. Aren't they both toads prone to overworking, standing on soapboxes, and happiest when alone with their own thoughts and creations? 

Yes, we are. 

We are also very, very sad. 

But take the blue skies and joy when they're there. And this present feels like both. 

I think Tim Martin would agree with me, even if I'm a gay Marxist Feminist and he's a Moderate Republican. 😉

Me and Tim Martin