It is my deep belief that through connection we heal.
David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole
As many of you know, my work and writings over the past several years have focused on connection and the significant role it can play in healing from the transition of someone we deeply love. When I talk about “connection,” it’s more than just saying ‘hello’ to someone you meet for the first time, or complementing someone, or casual conversations with friends, colleagues and family. It’s deeper than that.
The wise words from Lindsay-Abaire were from a letter he wrote to us in response to the one we sent to him in 2009 soon after Hilary and I went to see his play, Rabbit Hole. We shared with him how his play (which focuses on the tsunami of grief in the aftermath of the death of a four-year-old boy accidentally struck and killed by a car driven by a young driver) compelled us, against the advice of many, to reach out to and connect with the young man whose car accidentally struck and killed our son, Jimmy, nine months earlier. Although our connection with Peter was brief, it was profoundly powerful, deep and healing for all of us. That story is told in THE RABBIT HOLE LETTERS, which is also one of the chapters in Suffering Is the Only Honest Work.
That is one example, albeit an extreme one, of what I mean by ‘connection.’ However, there are myriad ways to connect with someone on a deeper level, and here is one on a much lighter note.
We’ve gotten our firewood from Randy Becker for the last 20 years. Since he makes his deliveries during the week, until I retired, I never had the opportunity to meet him. Hilary said he was a kind man, probably our age, severely disabled and walked with a pronounced limp. She thought he may have been wounded in Vietnam. She also described him as having long hair tied back in a ponytail, a beard and was pretty sure he and his wife had a place in east San Diego County where he stored the firewood.
We had an unusually warm winter in 2020 so we didn’t get our annual delivery and visit from Randy. By September of this year we were running low and Hilary called Randy to request a delivery. She spoke to his wife who said “no problem, we’ll get a half cord to you next week.” A few days later, Randy called Hilary, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, but I’m out of wood. My wife should have checked with me first. She’s up to her eyeballs helping take care of our six grandkids and doesn’t have time to pay attention to the business. You guys have been loyal customers and I don’t want to let you down. Let me see what I can do.”
A few days later Randy called Hilary. He found some wood and could deliver it on Wednesday. Perfect.
I was home when Randy pulled into the driveway with his well-worn pick-up truck towing an equally beat-up trailer. I went out to meet him. He was exactly how Hilary had described him. Maybe a few years younger, but his face said he’d lived harder years. I shook his hand. He had a strong grip, a palm dominated by callouses. It was like shaking hands with a piece of wood. As Hilary said, he walked with great difficulty, as if his legs were fused into his hips. Randy swung his legs from side to side with a practiced, labored motion-like a waddle. I felt sorry for him; especially for not getting firewood the year before. Everything moaned he didn’t have much and could use the money.
We both said how good it was to finally meet one another after all these years.
Randy was accompanied by a helper. This guy was younger, hard to tell, maybe mid to late forties. He was tall, lean and rugged, dressed in black denim pants and shirt, no hat. The characteristic that really stuck out was his coloring. He was Caucasian, but he had this deep, dark tan, borderline black, that suggested he spent most of his time outdoors. Like a cowboy. He waved but didn’t speak.
I left them to their work and went back into the workshop in my garage to put the finishing touches on something. As they were almost finished stacking the wood, I stuck my head out and said to Randy, “Before you leave, I have something for you.” He smiled with a curious look in his eyes.
My COVID-19 Hobby
Let me backtrack. In the dark spring of 2020, when everything shut down because of COVID-19—and I mean everything from gyms, golf courses to even beaches—this retired fellow needed something else to do besides writing, filling out my family tree and working out to on-line Pop-Sugar exercise videos. One day we were over at our daughter’s house, and she had this cute, Swiss-chalet like, birdhouse hanging from a tree. I thought “Hmmm, that might be something I could do with my grandsons.”
The next day, I headed over to Michaels and bought several pre-made unfinished birdhouses, and a slew of paints and brushes. I’ve always liked to paint and I can do some basic woodworking. So, I began to finish-out these birdhouses with different combinations of colors and adding things such as shingles, chimneys, trim and fences. I bought a bunch of balsa wood products and wood cutting tools on Amazon. Wyatt and Hunter came over several times to paint their own houses. They aren’t as “meticulous” as I, but I gave them free rein and I was quite impressed with their creativity and color choices. And they were proud to take home and show-off their creations.
Over the next five months, I finished about 15 of these houses, each one with more elaborate wood trimmings, and began to give them away to family and friends. The recipients were impressed and grateful.
And then I saw on Amazon—or more likely Amazon made sure I saw—a kit for a much larger, rustic, traditional birdhouse, with pre-cut pieces including shingles for the roof. It was pretty easy to assemble, and I figured I could build these myself. We had recently installed a new cedar fence in our back yard and there were a lot of extra planks. I consulted with a member of our Tuesday hiking club, Dr. Dave who is an expert wood worker, and he suggested I get a brad-nail gun and scroll saw. Off to Home-Depot.
By Thanksgiving 2020 I’d completed my first very-own birdhouse made from scratch, and I gave it to my son-in law’s father and step-mom. They were delighted and taken-aback by how much work went into it.
I decided to go into full-production mode. I’ve experimented with different kinds of wood stain and varnishes, and materials for the shingles and perches. I also build a one-half scale version which I think is pretty cute.
As Randy and his helper were wrapping up, I came outside with the birdhouse I’d finished that morning and handed it to Randy, “This is just an additional thank you for taking such good care of us over so many years.”
Randy quietly inspected the house. “You made this? This must have taken a long time… I don’t know what to say. Thank-you.”
I showed Randy my workshop in the garage. Randy gave me another smile, and this time, I swear, there was a glow around him. He was beaming. He began to tell me more about himself.
“It seems wood has been a big part of my life for many years. I used to be a tree trimmer, and a pretty good one at that. Until a harness broke and I fell out of a big tree in my early twenties. I broke both legs and hips and my back. Miracle I wasn’t paralyzed. Just lucky to be alive, I guess.”
We walked back outside, and he continued.
“After a long recovery and learning how to walk again, well, if you can call this walking.”
“I decided to build a tree house in this big eucalyptus tree behind the house we were renting at the time in Leucadia. [a few miles north of our house, and a block from the beach]. I guess it’s like they say, when you get bucked off a horse, climb back onto the saddle. I started with just a platform and kept adding on over the years. One of the local TV stations did a story on it a few years ago. If you ‘google’ my name you should be able to find it.
“I then taught myself how to make stain glass windows. The treehouse, our house which we ended up buying, and our garden are full of them. I also grow succulents, a particular kind that’s only found in certain places in South America. I sell them and my windows at local street fairs and farmer’s markets. I’ll bring over some of my succulents next week.”
Which he did.
“I’d like to show you and Hilary my treehouse and backyard sometime—and bring the grandkids. When it got too hard for me to climb the ladder, I built an elevator that pulls you up about thirty feet. There’s a video online—check it out. I also built a jacuzzi with a waterfall, and I recently learned how to make neon signs.”
I asked Randy what we owed him and went inside to write a check. I doubled the ask. After I handed it to him, he gave me a hard hug.
“Thank-you. You and some of my other long-time customers have been so good to me. I’m humbled by your loyalty and generosity. You’re like family to me.”
Randy’s helper walked over, picked up the birdhouse and gave it a close look.
“This is really well made.”
I asked him if he would also like to have a birdhouse. He smiled and said,
“I need to get a home first. But thanks all the same.”
With a wave they were off.
Over the last 18 months I’ve made and given away over 85 birdhouses. About half have gone to family and friends, and the rest to people who have done work at our house. I’ve given houses to our gardener, Alfonso, and his helpers (including his 65-year-old father in law); George, our carpet installer; Kendall and his crew that cleans our windows every year or so; Tony the furnace technician; Abe, our TV-Audio tech consultant; and Nate from Ting who recently installed our high-speed fiber optic cable, among others.
Without exception, they are surprised and exceedingly grateful. But then, something wonderful, even magical happens. My gesture opens a door- to that artificial barrier we impose between worker/service provider and customer—and they always step through and tell me something about themselves.
Alfonso is a young father and he loves to talk about his 1 year-old daughter. His father-in-law can’t speak English, but through Alfonso, he told me he took his birdhouse to Mexico where it is prominently displayed outside his brother’s house, and admired by all the neighbors. A couple weeks after I gave Alfonso his house, he brought over some large pieces of bamboo. “I think you could make some good birdhouses from this.” I did. Alfonso is now one of my design consultants! When his father-in-law joins him to work at our house, he always gives me this big smile and, through Alfonso, we talk about how we’re recovering from our knee replacements.
George was born in Greece and he told me about growing up there as a boy. He loves the huge Torrey Pine tree at our house and his eyes lit up as he compared it to the olive trees from his hometown that are over a thousand years old.
Tony, the furnace repair technician, is from Serbia, and he told me all about his saltwater aquarium hobby and how he is teaching his kids how to take care of the tanks and the many species of fish.
You know what they say about “Assume?”
You see, I just assumed Randy was a crippled Vietnam Vet barely scraping by on selling firewood. Until the door was opened. He is more than a survivor. He’s an incredibly gifted artist and craftsman with this elf-like imagination and creativity, living in a nice house near the beach, and serving as the neighborhood Santa Claus treating kids, big and small, from all over the County to tours of his personal Disneyland. He also helps guys living on the streets or in shelters get back on their feet by giving them work.
A simple thing made of wood and some stain and varnish. And some TLC.
It doesn’t take much to open the door and create a connection and a bond that will last forever.
You just have to turn the knob and pull.
And it’s so very healing for everybody.
The featured photo I selected for this story is of Cody Burke and me in front of our Torrey Pine tree taken in May of 2020. Cody is the talented hard wood floor craftsman I introduced in the “Cody-Permission to Grieve” chapter in When the Veil Comes Down. Cody was one of my first experiences of throwing open the door to that artificial barrier between service provider and customer. We both stepped through and connected more deeply than we ever could have imagined. I gave him one of my pre-made birdhouses for his kids. The next day he brought over a big box full of wood stains, varnishes and sandpaper for my workshop.