“We lost PJ Patterson this morning…Logging accident.”
I stared at the words on the screen in disbelief. My friend, Deena, had just let me know that one of our most beloved classmates had passed away. Suddenly. Without warning. Gone.
I audibly cried out ‘No!’ without realizing it.
I had been in the middle of a large writing project and the words that had been swarming around me simply evaporated. I got up and went outside and stared into the sky that was frustratingly benign. I was trying to recall the last time I talked with PJ. We hadn’t really kept in touch since high school except for the reunions. Strangely, that didn’t seem to stem the tide of emotion that was rising in me, especially when thinking of his wife, Jeanie and their kids.
My feet carried me across the yard and along a path as I tried to sort through the feelings. Memories of PJ quickly bubbled up. I’d known him from grade school onward and though we didn’t run in the same circles, he just always seemed…to be there.
Memory snapshots played in my mind’s eye…
…PJ, Mike Brinkerhoff and me carrying a large sheet cake to his house from Harrison Elementary school on the last day before Christmas break in our sixth grade year. I think his mom, Colleen, had made it and we were trying desperately to get it back to his house a few blocks away without dropping it. I remember it being huge and PJ saying something like, “…if this falls we might as well just stop and eat it…” From then on it was touch and go whether we make it or fall into a flour and frosting heap from hysterics…
…I was always very small for my age and in high school the disparity between me and everyone else was glaring. I’d get teased, most good-naturedly but sometimes not. But whenever I’d see PJ come down the hall in my direction he’d always cock his head a little, and smile that wide, shining smile of his and say something like, “Hey, John, how’s it going?” And he meant it. PJ had a kindness of soul that was beyond his years and eyes that took you in when he spoke with you….
…My friend, Mike Hull, and I were forever shooting 8mm movies in high school. We needed a couple more fight scenes for a martial arts epic and I had gathered a couple of folks at a house but we were one bad guy short. I looked across the street and there was the Patterson house. I don’t why but I raced over there and sure enough PJ was home and I asked if he wouldn’t mind getting beat up in a pivotal fight scene. No sooner had I said it than he pulled on a tank top and headed across the street with me. I set up the choreography, which he thought was amusing. I was to confront three bad guys and with just a bamboo staff. I went through the moves with each bad guy and said we could do it several times until we got it right. PJ had never done anything like this before to my knowledge. So I cued our camera man and we spun, thrust and parried, and as I swung the staff at PJ – he flew backwards, as if I’d really clocked him. I didn’t but his reaction was so natural I couldn’t be sure. We called cut and I asked if he was alright and he bounced up, smiled and said, of course. Did we need to do it again, he asked? I said no, he was perfect. He said okay, glanced at me sideways and smiled again as if he was pleased he could help, and jaunted back across the street….
…seeing PJ and his then girlfriend and future wife, Jeanie, in the middle of the high school football field at half time of the homecoming game of our senior year. I was up in the top of the stands but I remember focusing on them as they were announced homecoming King and Queen. They were both good looking people but that’s not what I remember seeing at the time. It was the way they turned to look at each other. And for a few moments they kept that look between them. Something resonated in me and I remember thinking that I hoped I could feel and share that with someone someday…
The last time I saw him was two years ago at our high school class reunion. My wife and I were late getting to the pizza parlor for an informal get-together. As we crossed the parking lot to go in, a tall, lanky gentleman with a half-smile came up to me and it was PJ. He looked the same even though I hadn’t seen him in years. I introduced him to Dawn, my wife and he did a little respectful head bow, which I thought was endearing. We talked about our lives, his family, work in the woods and our life in the south. We laughed easily with one another and I can remember feeling so comfortable, embraced even, in his presence. After we said our goodbyes, I actually missed him, wondering why I hadn’t made a point to stay in better touch. But life sometimes carries us away on currents that makes it hard to hold dear all the things we should.
There are some people in your life who represent the best of childhood. They, and their families, seem to be a beacon to that time and all of the cherished moments of our early days. PJ was one of those for me. And I didn’t even truly realize it until after he was gone.
His family has posted several photos of PJ at work in the woods and engaging with family. One photo particularly caught my eye. He’s standing near a recently cut Douglas Fir. His chainsaw is leaning against the base of the massive tree and he’s kind of in profile, looking off past camera, his soul-shining smile on full display. He seems happy and content. It’s almost as if he’s saying…Thank you for this…for the joy of working in the woods…for the cherished family you have given me…for this life.
And I found tears sliding down my cheeks because I could now imagine another smile shining back at him, face to face, from the One who was now embracing him in a way that I’m almost sure is causing him to bellow out that joyous, bassy laugh of his.
I miss you, PJ. You’ve left a thunderously large impression.
And we’re the better for it.