The Secret Heart

The Secret Heart

from The San Diego AA Coordinator, February 2008 ~

It had just begun to rain and I thought to myself that it was fitting weather for a memorial service. The rhythm of the windshield wipers sounded almost stoic as I drove. It was an autumn day and it was raining. The clouds seemed to be wringing out the essence of the winter to come. I was going to say goodbye to a friend, not being too sure he would have wanted all the fuss made over him in the first place.

I pulled into car into the Alano Club parking lot and was surprised to see plenty of parking spaces. Arnie, though not a cornerstone of A.A., still from my way of thinking deserved to be sent to the hereafter with the respect an elder statesman in A.A. warrants. I made it into the club without getting too soaked. The door slammed shut behind me, which was usually an embarrassment because everyone would shush you. Today was different. I looked to see eleven or twelve people, most of them old, sitting at one table towards the front of the room. Knowing the majority of the folks, I made my rounds and found a seat in the corner where I usually sat when I came to the club for meetings.

My attention was drawn to several flower arrangements at the front of the room. One in particular was so beautiful I wanted to look at it up close. There was a note that said, “With love from Dave, Cindy, Dave Jr., and little Arnie.” The names did not mean anything to me, but I thought they sure must have been special to have sent such a beautiful flower arrangement. Next to that there was a two-foot by four-foot bulletin board with various pictures of Arnie. Looking at one of the picturesin particular, taken in his later years.

I remembered the first time I met Arnie. I was newly sober and had fumbled my way into a Tuesday night discussion meeting. The only seat available was in the back right next to this vintage bearded guy with a Grateful Dead tee-shirt and Ugg boots. Having made a decision to do whatever I had to do to stay sober, I sank into my chair. Avoiding eye contact with anyone in the room I managed to not have to share or even make small talk. That was the longest hour and fifteen minutes I had ever had to endure. The most frightening part of the night came, the closing prayer, and holding hands. This Jerry-Garcia-burn-out next to me who hadn’t said a word or given me the satisfaction of acknowledging my presence, stuck out his hand. My sweaty, clammy, shaky melted into his.

For some strange reason I felt a sudden calm or peacefulness when Arnie and I held hands. Finally the prayer was over. I wanted to race out of the room, but this old dude wouldn’t let go of my hand. He looked at me and in this scratchy voice said, “My name’s Arnie. You’re gonna be all right kid. Keep coming back.” Arnie and I became friends from that night on. In Arnie’s later years, after they took his drivers license, he let me pick him up and drive to a book study we both attended. I’ve never forgotten Arnie’s prediction when I was scared and new; his reassuring words meant a lot to me.

The service was your average run-of-the mill memorial with remembrances and goodbyes. At the end of the ceremony one of Arnie’s oldest friends asked me if I would help sort out Arnie’s affairs at his house. I was a busy guy. I had things to do and places to go. I said, “sure.”

Three days later, the rain had stopped but the clouds were still fringing the skyline. An occasional ray of sunshine would pop through to remind you what the weather could be like. Pulling up to Arnie’s, house, I thought of the many times l had helped Arnie down the steps and into my car to go to a meeting. It gave me a lump in my throat.

Friendship is kind of a funny thing: I guess I just expected Arnie would always be there on Wednesday nights. I got of my car and went up the steps. The door opened and Arnie’s two closest people in the world, a friend and his oldest spon- see greeted me and invited me in. Arnie’s house was a modest two bedroom semi-clean bachelor pad. The pictures on the walls were either of lions or Bristle Cone pines. Arnie had told me of his fascination with the Bristle Cone pine trees in the White Mountains or the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of central California. These special trees are the oldest living things on earth. I had been in Arnie’s house before: this was all familiar territory. We boxed the entire contents of Arnie’s life into a collection of twenty-three produce boxes. Somehow that didn’t seem to be worthy measure of a man.

One or the last things we organized was this ancient looking footlocker. The outside was scarred and looked like it had made some extensive travels. There were tattered and faded stickers from all over the world: this case caught my attention. Not wanting to intrude on my late friend’s personal space, I asked what to do with the locker.

Bobby, Arnie’s oldest friend said, “It’s all gotta go!” The brass latch opened with a little difficulty. There, delicately preserved, was a well-worn scrapbook. It was a family album of sorts. Feeling I had perhaps over-stepped the boundaries into Arnie’s privacy, l removed the tattered chronicle with reluctance. Turning the cover l was surprised to see a picture of Arnie with two other guys in Canadian Air Force uniforms. The three were standing in front of a World War II bomber. I had never heard Arnie talk about being in the war. Bob said that Arnie had been a tail gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

On the next page was the date April 27, 1962. Asking Bob about the date, I found out that it was Arnie’s sobriety date. Expecting to find family pictures and memorabilia, I turned the pages only to find journals of people Arnie had known or had helped in A.A. The amazing thing was the details. There were first meeting dates, sobriety dates, accomplishments, and where necessary, final dates. As I looked through the detailed chronicles it became very clear how much love this retired statesman possessed for those in the program. All his “babies” were carefully organized in the book with stand-out information, good and bad. There were news clippings when one of his own had risen to the top. There was also notations if one of them had fallen out of grace with society.

One interesting page recorded Arnie’s caring relationship with a man named Dave whom he had helped through the steps in 1965. Dave’s progress was meticulously chronicled with words and photographs. There was a picture of Arnie and Dave and a woman, apparently Dave’s wife on their wedding day. Next there were baby pictures, little league, and high school graduation pictures for two fine looking boys. There were two college graduation announcements and pictures of each one of the boys with Arnie beside them in their commencement robes. There was a letter that had been re-opened so many times the creases were almost worn through. The letter said:

“Dearest Grandpa Arnie,
We just brought our new baby home from the hospital. Since we all moved from San Diego to Chicago, all I can do is send you a photo of young Arnie. While we were waiting in the delivery room, Dad told me how all that has happened was due to you stopping Dad from taking his life back in sixty-five. We knew that you were our adopted grandpa, but we never knew how significant your stepping in to help Dad has been to our whole family. Your love for my dad and our family has sustained us and I just wish I could be there to thank you. As always, all our love, Dave Jr.”

I had to go get a tissue for the tears I had left on the note. Trying to regain my composure, I tearfully set the now priceless photo album back in the footlocker with the rest of the things to be taken away.

What is a measure of a man? What are the riches that sustain us for eternity? The life of every man is a chronicle to his legacy.

“Any good that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect, for I shall not pass this way again.” (Anonymous)

Chuck S.

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