All you had to do was walk into his presence, smile and say "Hi, Harold," and his face would just light up. It was, as they say, a sight to see.
He wasn't always that happy man, and struggled for years with depression and alcohol, sons he rarely saw and women he'd left behind. I didn't know him back then, of course, but rather met him years after he had managed to settle into a life that he loved -- with his wife Andrea, whom he married back in '76, and his son Evan, my sweet man, born three years later.
To me, honestly, he seemed like a giant teddy bear -- a quiet, gentle, bearded man with the strength of an ox and the steadfastness of an oak. It's hard to imagine those earlier years of discontent, of wandering the world, of serving in the Merchant Marines, getting shot at while running ammunition up the Saigon River, leaving broken hearts in his wake. It's hard to imagine but it also explained the hints of sadness, of longing, that seemed to linger sometimes in the creases at the corners of his eyes. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, with him, between laugh lines and loss.
One of my favorite memories of Harold, Christmas of 2001. Nathan and I flew in to SeaTac from New York and Evan came to pick us up. His car broke down before we even got north of Seattle, but we managed to get to a friend's apartment. It was late, closing in on midnight by then, and Evan called his mom to let her know we wouldn't be able to make it home that night. Moments later Andrea called us back to tell us Harold was out the door, car keys in hand -- there was no way in hell he was leaving his kid with a broke-down car in the middle of the night, hours away from home.
Another favorite memory, July of 2009, at the barbecue Mom and Paul hosted here in Anacortes for all the west coast folks who wouldn't be able to attend Nathan's wedding in Philadelphia that September. Paul spent the afternoon working his oyster-grilling magic and Harold spent the afternoon holding trays of oysters, wandering the barbecue, quietly offering them to the other guests. There was something so sweet, such a desire to be present and helpful despite a quietness that maybe sometimes made conversing difficult for him, that I found myself wanting to just give him a big huge hug. That was a few months before Evan and I got together, but I knew by then that his was a family I wanted to get to know better.
Evan moved to New York not long after that, and for the next few years it broke my heart when it came time to say goodbye to Harold at the end of our Anacortes visits. He always looked so sad to see us go, to see this beloved son of his leaving for the far side of the country. I can only imagine his joy when Evan decided to move home again almost two years ago, and then I didn't have to imagine it when I finally moved to Anacortes a few months ago. He wore it all over his face.
The last few months were hard for Harold after spending a lifetime building houses, sailing the seas first in the Merchant Marines and then as an engineer for the Washington State Ferries, road-tripping with friends and family, learning the banjo and the dobro and falling into the wonderfully close-knit and familial world of the northwest bluegrass scene. The last few months saw his world shrink down to a recliner chair in the guest room, the trip from there to the kitchen, to the bedroom or bathroom and back again. As his liver disease progressed his eyesight grew worse and he began struggling to follow a conversation, to differentiate at times between waking and sleep, to eat, finally to breathe.
Yet through these months of enduring this slow decline and ever-shrinking world, Harold continued to live with an almost shocking grace. We would sit quietly together for a little while most days, he in his recliner chair and me pulled up close with my knitting in my lap. The television would be playing -- old westerns or Pandora bluegrass or country music stations -- and we'd talk about random things, as thoughts rose up through the increasing muddled-ness of his mind. The merits of the Beatles verses the Stones. The surprise of watching old tv shoes (Sanford & Son, specifically) and hearing words that are no longer okay to say. Whether or not I'd like some weed with the celery and peanut butter we were munching on (I didn't). Whether or not he wanted to continue taking anti-depressants. The frustration of causing stress and work for his loved ones.
Once, when I was sitting with him so Andrea could go out for a hair cut, he asked me a couple times when she'd be back. Eventually I noticed him looking off into the distance, a sad and affectionate smile on his face. When I asked him if I could get him anything, he sort of shook himself aware and said, "I sure miss that woman when she's not here...."
Another time, I arrived at the front door to find a semi-frazzled Evan trying to clean Harold up after his breakfast hadn't settled well and he'd vomited all over himself, his chair, the floor. I ended up sitting with Harold in the bedroom while Evan finished cleaning up the mess in the other room. Harold asked where Evan was, what he was doing, kept saying what a good boy Evan is, and eventually this: "I'm so glad he's my son. Otherwise I might not have been lucky enough to know him."
Home hospice care began this past Sunday, the hospital bed arrived Monday afternoon, and though of course we all knew what that meant, I think we were expecting weeks, months, to be able to sit with Harold, to smile at him and bask in his gentleness. Not days, certainly not hours.
It was a good dying, in the end. Early Tuesday morning he took his last breaths in his bedroom, in this gorgeous house that he built, his wife and son at his side. But despite that it is still a shock, as death always seems to be, and the void in the shape of this dear man will linger for a long time, as it should.