This week we celebrate two of the greatest men the world will ever know.
Dr. Martin Luther King would have turned 83 January 15. Our nation celebrates in his memory on the second Monday of each January with a national holiday. I, however, also take this day to celebrate the memory of his wife, Coretta Scott King as well. In my book I talk about a visit I was lucky enough to have with her at the King Center in Atlanta. It was a special afternoon in my life so on MLK Day I remind myself what a fortunate person I am.
My friend Muhammad Ali, (a chapter in my book describes how we became friends), will be 70 today. His hometown celebrated this past weekend with a huge birthday party held at, and benefiting, the magnificent Muhammad Ali Center in the heart of downtown Louisville Kentucky. Among the hundreds that attended were many famous faces.
In the press kit the Center is described as a “cultural attraction and international education center which continues the ideals of its founder.” Visitors are encouraged to “explore ‘the greatest’ that lies within yourself,” and suggests to use the tools of, respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality.
I told Ali he should add the word “compassion” as well.
Disabled by years of suffering from Parkinson’s Syndrome, Ali has a difficult time walking and is unable to speak clearly but there is no doubt his brain is still sharp. He can still rope a few dopes. Enormously proud of his Center, he is especially pleased to point out the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received in 2005, which is on prominent display and really very beautiful.
So, happy birthday gentlemen and lady! I salute your courage.
Speaking of courage, I went to visit my good friend Ann this past week. We met fourteen years ago and have always shared a bond which was only strengthened when we both lost our partners in 2011. She is alone and so am I. I have learned a great deal from Ann. She has enormous courage, a sense of humor, real charm and a quick unmerciful tongue when she is provoked. Husband Milton often provoked her and it was a riot to watch two strong characters going at it. Sometimes I’d jump in and the feathers would doubly fly.
Milton, a native of Tennessee, was an accomplished geologist who oversaw huge building projects throughout the world. He met Ann while on a job in Ethiopia. Originally from France her family had relocated to Ethiopia and she had been essentially raised under the strict ruler Emperor Haile Selassie. At a young age she learned to speak six languages fluently, all the while becoming a remarkable pianist. She met and married Milton in her forties. Admittedly, this couple took huge risks as they traversed the world on one marvelous adventure after another which led them to Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Spain and finally to Walnut Creek. The final house they created together reflects many of their diverse interests and travels. Over the years they collected some simply amazing artifacts
Ann is now 96. Milton, five years her junior was supposed to outlive her (she is truly pissed off about it). Well, as she quotes, “life happens while you’re making other plans.”
My friendship with this unique couple began fourteen years ago when they came into my shop to arrange catering for what was to become their annual musical evening. The program always included Ann on piano accompanying the invitees as they played their various instruments or sang a favorite movement or song. This wasn’t Karaoke. In fact, a rehearsal schedule in preparation for the evening was strictly adhered to.
I loved these two right off the top. They were well educated and just plainly so damn smart. They enjoyed the first evening so each year they trotted back in tandem.
Now, did I mention this was a party for 25 people and Milton was a frugal guy? Oh yeah! Price was an issue. Ann told him to “put a sock in it” with her French accent. He grumbled on and my company never realized a dime of monetary profit. However, the riches we garnered from getting to know these two can’t be measured.
Soon another annual tradition developed. I began visiting on Christmas Eve bearing a gift of a freshly baked pumpkin pie and staying long enough to share a glass of wine while we all became animated over something or other. Ann is a devout Roman Catholic and Milton was an atheist. Conversation on this holy night was always spirited. I confess I don’t like Christmas much. Frankly I’m glad Jesus wasn’t really born in December, but in spite of the dreary world outside, I always looked forward to these visits which were certainly never dreary.
When I arrived at the house in 2010 however, it was apparent that Milton was dying. Just back from the hospital he was fragile and weak. He confided to me that he had fought Celiac disease (a condition that prevents the body from absorbing food and nutrients) for many years but this was his final battle and he would not win.
Ann had no intention of accepting this analysis. She was fighting mad and screaming at the top of her lungs. I would come to understand this completely in the months to follow. She lost her war and soon after so did I. We aren’t women who accept defeat easily. We fight. God knows we have a point-of-view.
Milton left us a year ago tomorrow. The day before he died he was still yelling at Ann and she was yelling back. But, when she left the room during my final visit with him, he asked me to keep and eye on her.
I have. Along with her many other friends.
And, just because I suspected he was up there watching with his frugal eye, I insisted on giving the Memorial service catering as a parting gift lest I arrive someday wherever he is and get accused of price gouging. Ann told me if that happens to tell him to just shut up.
In May of 2011, the day after my partner died, I went over to Ann’s house to let her know. She enjoyed Gene’s company. Both shared a vast knowledge of classical music and composers. We sat there together that afternoon not saying a word. What was there to say really?
I planned to make Ann’s pie on Christmas Eve and deliver it the next day but I never got there. As it turned out I spent Christmas Day in the hospital with a severe case of the flu. I missed Ann’s call which she placed to me because she knew something must be terribly wrong. When I was finally feeling up to seeing her, I made my seasonal trek — pumpkin pie in hand.
This coming week on the first anniversary of Milton’s death Ann will mark the difficult year with a private service at her parish church. There will be no music. She has not played the piano this past year because, “it makes me too sad.” I understand completely. Things simply crop up (often out of nowhere) that just make you sad.
But as my mother used to quote, “it is far better to have loved and lost then not to have loved at all.”
I told Ann that a woman, known for reading self-help textbooks, had recently written to me, “you were caught flatfooted and not prepared for Gene’s death.”
To which Ann, one of the greatest ladies in every sense of the word I will ever know, replied, “Ask the bitch what she knows about it!”
Then we dissolved into laughter.
After all, the sun will come up tomorrow. But, just in case, I came right home and ordered a textbook on the Mayan Prophesy predicting the end of the world later this year. Mercifully it won’t end until after the elections.
Because, like I always say, you just never can be too prepared. Of course the key question then is — after you’ve prepared fully, is there any time left to actually live life?
Pondering this question I decided to go soak my flat feet.