in Columns Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times

Tea & Sympathy After Beloved Friend Dies

Asheville Citizen-Times 07/21/2014 –

When he passed away, I was amply prepared, but not at all equipped. I read a book or two on coping with loss— empty words that left me half filled.
(Photo: , Special to the Citizen-Times )

(Photo: , Special to the Citizen-Times )

I think most school teachers are great, and the worst ones are still pretty good. I was lucky, I had one of the best — a high school English teacher transplanted from the Deep South.

The oldest of three children, Charlie traveled north for his education, leaving his parents and two sisters behind in Mississippi. He was a wonderful educator who created vast new realms of thinking for me.
After I graduated, he became a good friend, then an unofficial family member — always present for holidays and special occasions. And we traveled the life cycle together. He was a surrogate father to me, then we were equal, and finally, in his hour of need, I became the parent.

The day the diagnosis arrived, he was climbing a tree in the backyard with my daughter. I learned his death would be slow and difficult, which though very sad would allow me enough time to adjust to the new reality.

I was wrong. When he passed away, I was amply prepared, but not at all equipped. I read a book or two on coping with loss — empty words that left me half filled. I listened to friends who said the passage of time would help. And I tried to stay focused, to remain in the moment, but was unable to turn that pivotal, emotional corner that would allow me to move on.

I found an old, overlooked video tape in a box from his house. The label indicated a birthday from many years before. I recognized the date and knew my wife and I had been present.

I was confident I had finally discovered the vehicle that would allow me to move forward again — that the recorded moments would bring back the man, the time, the comfort level. Instead of having to resort to memory, he would be with us again.

I inserted the videocassette into an ancient VCR, turned on the TV and watched. It was a big mistake. I quickly realized that I was facing an indecipherable language. Instead of comfort, I was dragged into a surreal compilation of previously happy moments.

I viewed an October party where the color intensity of the autumn leaves could be heightened or lowered with the twist of a knob. I saw a robotic man move backward and forward at the whim of a remote control. And when I replayed the tape, the identical words and canned background laughter always resurfaced.

The recorded images were artificial, removed … taunting.

Several weeks later, I decided to visit Charlie’s two elderly sisters. I had briefly spoken to both over the telephone, but we’d never met. I thought seeing them would somehow be helpful.

They welcomed me.

It was early twilight when I sat in the living room of a house the two shared. A gardenia-scented breeze slipped through the screened window as we sipped tea. They spoke quietly of the weather, the new discount store across town, and, of course, the death in the family.

A black-and-white, slightly out-of-focus photograph of their brother sat on a table between them. The picture showed a boy resting a fishing pole on his shoulder while offering a coast-to-coast smile to the camera.

They reminisced about how he loved cornbread and lemon meringue pie, how he fell off a carnival pony and broke his arm, and his frightening bout with polio. And they had known that after having a taste of the big city, he would never return to stay.

It was obvious to me that the years had left their stream of recollections clear, honest and seemingly painless, with no illusions, no airbrushing. The conversation lagged and lights sprinkled around the small community as darkness closed in.
After thanking and leaving the women, I paused briefly on the sidewalk in front of their house and watched the two through their front window. With the tea consumed and their memories intact, one sister picked up the cups and saucers while the other kissed the tip of her finger and briefly touched the glass over Charlie’s face.

They turned out the lamps, leaving a single light burning in the hallway.

I can still see their shadows make way into the recesses of their home, two women who were able to understand, articulate and accept their brother’s death through the celebration of his life, a magical place of calm and serenity that eludes me still.

Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His first novel, “The Fall of Summer,” a 1960s coming-of-age story, is scheduled for release in September. Contact him at