The Tears Of Homer Downing

I should have known that would be the last time I would see him; the eagle should have warned me. But his death was far from my mind, further, honestly, than it had been for years. We had had such a fun night, laughing and singing, dancing to the rhythm of the martini shaker. Homer had been merrier than I had ever known him, even waving a flashlight farewell as he sang his way down the trail to his cabin after midnight.

As I sat on my porch the next morning, hot coffee in hand, bundled up against the morning frost, waiting for the sun to crest the ridge and warm my bones, Homer stepped out onto his dock, surveying the lake he so loved. He stood tall and straight despite his years of illness, walked without aid after his latest surgery. Even from the distance, I could sense his contentment, the stillness of one completely at ease. Then the eagle dropped out of the tall fir that stood alongside his cabin, fell in a controlled curve, swooped down to the water on outstretched wings before a powerful pulse sent it soaring. A younger man would have heard the air crackling through the feathers, felt the whiff of breeze on his hair as the bird passed, but Homer was unaware, unalarmed, lost in his morning thoughts. The beauty of it caught in my heart, this secret blessing from a bald eagle to a kindred spirit, strong and solitary both. I packed away the vision of it with the rest of my gear that morning, my annual vacation at an end. I kept it with me over the coming months, pulled it out when I needed a reminder of the grace of the world in the face of work-a-day troubles.

Homer had been dead a month, maybe six weeks, when I finally got word. If I hadn’t sent that silly card, the one with the three martini glasses on the front that reminded me of our night singing a drunken approximation of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” I might not have known until the next fall, when I arrived at the lake to find the neighboring cabin dark and cold and empty. As it was, however, his son opened my card and invited me to the public memorial. What a surprise it was to find myself sitting in an ornately carved and gilded reception room of the state capitol amongst legislators and jurists, remnants of a powerful career of which I had been unaware. Homer had always been the unassuming, helpful neighbor who taught me just enough to be safely self-reliant and expected me to figure out the rest on my own. Sure I knew bits about him, about his family. I had known that he had been a lawyer, but this? I listened to tales of back room deals, partisan political maneuverings, legislative sleight of hand in the name of the greater good, told conspiratorially with laughter and admiration by a Supreme Court justice, an attorney general, and a former governor.

It was hard to believe that the savvy, calculating man they described was the same man I had known. Then his daughter stood up to the microphone and told the story of how, when she and her siblings were young, the family would gather together and try to decide what movie to go to see. Their mother would want to see some bittersweet romance and the kids would want to see some harrowing adventure, but invariably each suggestion would get shot down with “We can’t see that, it’ll make Daddy cry.” Thus, she assured us, theirs was singularly a childhood of Pink Panther movies and some of the sillier musicals.

Here at last was the man I had known. The mention of their mother sent me back to the first afternoon I met Homer. It may even have been my very first year at the cabin, when, looking across the lake to the boathouse, I saw the sun glinting off of something unidentified and went to investigate. It turned out to be an upturned mahogany rowboat, of unusually wide beam and shallow draft and beautiful craftsmanship, varnished to a sparkle, not a scratch to mar the surface. Homer came out and stood a few feet from me, hands in his pockets, waiting politely for the younger woman to start the conversation.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m staying at the cabin across the lake, and I saw your boat here, had to come and take a closer look.”

“It is beautiful, isn’t it? I had the boat made for my wife, custom built in New Hampshire.”

“It is magnificent, a work of art. Don’t know how you can stand to put it in the water.”

“I needed a boat that would be steady enough to hold her in a wheelchair to get across the lake. We spent every summer here while we were raising our kids. I wanted her to still be able to come up after the stroke, but she died before the boat was delivered. Never have put it in the water, other than to row it across the one time.”

I honestly don’t remember what I said in response, but it must have been sincere enough for him to invite me inside for a cup of tea, the first of what turned out to be many an afternoon spent in quiet conversation, often accompanied by his silent tears. It sounds maudlin when I describe it now, but it wasn’t, ever. He simply wasn’t afraid to pair his tears with the subject, if it was fitting. It was somehow soothing to have life’s sorrow acknowledged, not laughed away or ignored. Like the year he described watching his youngest son sink into depression, lose his marriage and his career, crying at his distress. Or the year my sister died, his tears for my loss as genuine as my own. And then there was 9/11. It was early on, just a week or two after the attacks, and I watched as he cried for all the lives yet to be lost. He knew, you see, that war was coming, for all he knew maybe it was understandable to attack Afghanistan, but still he cried for the human cost of it.

Homer’s tears taught me much over the years about humility and humanity. But when I think of Homer now, I think of the joy we shared our last night. Unknown to me, he was still sick, sick to death, dying. But he knew, and he accepted it. He had always saved his tears for the sufferings of others. At his own end, he had the courage to laugh, to sing, and to dance, that last night, with me.

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