My friend Charlie Schlesinger passed away at 12:04 a.m. early Sunday morning. He'd been through it all - most recently a second liver transplant that had been working as the rest of his body shut down. Charlie was young - much too young to be so sick - only 61 - 62 in a few weeks - not yet eligible for senior citizen Medicare, even. But die he did, without a tenth life in him.
Everyone knew Charlie. I cannot remember, in my 15 now 16 years of living in Spokane, ever talking about Charlie without hearing, "Oh, yes - I know Charlie." Whether people knew him because of his work as an investigator, or as a DJ for his jazz radio show on Friday nights ("Jazz With Chazz"), or as a member and security guard of the local Jewish temple, or as an avid Spokane Indians baseball fan, or just because of Charlie himself - who seemed to know everyone from somewhere - everyone knew him. He was sort of like the president that way - except with Charlie, everyone knew him personally. When he got so sick the first time, and was on death's door before, the radio still played the jazz program, with a different DJ, and a slightly different name: "Jazz for Chazz," this time. We all wanted Charlie to live.
Charlie - wow - with his raspy voice, and his big heart, and his commitment to friends (which was anyone who crossed his path) - Charlie was a living, breathing example of how to be. Charlie is a big reason of how I stayed in Spokane, really. He asked, back in 1996, when I was getting ready to move to his hometown of NYC to be a public defender, why I was leaving. Well, I don't have a job here, I said - pointed out - something he already knew. We'll keep you here, he said, and set about finding me a job. I took a different one that he found, but his belief in the outcome gave me the impetus to imagine the possibilities. That was Charlie.
And he helped me when I found out the story about the 1946 baseball guys, the Spokane Indians team that died in a bus crash midway through the season, the subject of my novel - he loved the Indians team, had season tickets forever, knew everyone at the stadium (what a shocker) - he vouched for me with the front office of the team - I told him of the connection I found between the 1946 team and the Brooklyn Dodgers, knowing he would love the stories of what I'd learned -
I can't really do justice to describing who Charlie was. I can just try, with an example or two. And my stories are just a sliver of the stories out there, of Charlie and his big heart, raspy voice.
I saw him just a few short weeks ago - ran into him, outside his house. (Just a couple days earlier, I had seen Sue, his - how can she be called girlfriend? so connected to him - life partner, is a better way to describe all they were to each other... so he'd known I was still around....) It was a good day for him, and I was so glad to see him up and about. "Let's go to lunch sometime," I said, seeing his good energy. Well, he said, today's a good day, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. I knew lunch wouldn't happen. But I was glad to see him, just the same, and glad to make the plan.
I went to graveside services on Monday, and there they were - the eclectic gathering that of course would be there to say goodbye. One of the speakers coined it by saying that Charlie knew everyone - whether it was the clerk at the airport in China, or... and then asked us all to turn to each other and find out how we each knew him. When I explained it was through his investigator work, and the people I was talking to wanted to know how that happened, I couldn't really say or remember - because I just had always known him, is the thing. And they all nodded, like they knew what I meant.
There were some funny stories, some heartfelt ones, and then it was time for a final goodbye. The rabbi explained the Jewish tradition, of us each taking a shovel and, using the back side, lifting (not scooping) a little bit of dirt to throw on his coffin, three times - then setting the shovel back down for the next person - not handing it over, not rushing it, taking our time instead. Each of these steps, the rabbi said, is a way to show our reluctance to say goodbye.
So I stood in line, and waited my turn, and then took the shovel and got some dirt, three different times, to put on the coffin. I took my time, like the rabbi had asked. And then, too quickly, my turn was done. So long old friend, I thought. We will all really miss you.