A year ago at this time, wife Carolyn and I had coffee with a long-time friend of mine from my school days in Odessa. Several years earlier, I had reconnected with this guy from my past and we’d had a great lunch together, reminiscing for over three hours.
Though his real name was "Howard," he‘d gone by the nickname of "Happy" since the mid-1960’s. The thing is, we all knew Happy had only a few months to live. Three months earlier, Happy had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of abdominal cancer, and the doctors strongly suggested that he get his affairs in order rather soon.
We needed to see Happy, and see him we did. To be honest, we saw Happy "happy." Really. He and I go all the way back to Crockett Junior High when I was in the ninth grade and Happy was a seventh grader. Then on through Odessa High as well.
Unbeknownst to me, this scrawny, "big-personality kinda guy" really looked up to me as a role model. Both of us were of slight build, yet were still "wannabe" athletes. I went into journalism, and he chose choir, where he became quite the singer. So much so, that on occasion he even sang around with the soon-to-be famous Gatlin Brothers country group.
Happy and I both were in student council and selected "Most Dependable" by our fellow classmates. Though I knew him only casually at best, I was unawares he was watching me from afar and desired to be like me. Fast-forward some 50 years later, and here are Carolyn and I listening to this 67 year-old dying man tell his story.
And what a story it was!
After receiving the dire confirmed prognosis from his doctors and the word got out, the following post is essentially what he put on his Facebook page for his family, friends, and associates to know:
"Listen, people. Do not feel sorry for me. I’ve had a GREAT life.... a wonderful, full life. Though death is imminent for me within a short few months, I’m gonna keep on-a-living. I have no regrets. I’ve traveled the world over, and have a wonderful loving family. So let’s all enjoy and love each other some more, this time we’re given. I’ve lived my life as ‘Happy’ for some 60 years, so why would I change that now?"
Happy told us in person, that yes, he’d done his crying (at night while all alone.) But with each new day dawning, he counted it as another day to connect with those he loves, and do something good for others. Happy admitted to having his faults and a few regrets, but he still maintained his "wicked wit" sense of humor. He’d just naturally come out sporadically with little quips with an edgy twist that would sometimes produce lighthearted uneasiness to the listener... thereby giving Happy the desired reaction and satisfaction.
On a bit of a tamer side, he’d say such things as "I’m gonna miss me, too." And then follow up with "Now that I’ve talked enough about me, I’ll just sit back and listen while YOU talk about me." This sharp, affable entrepreneur became a very, very successful businessman in the DFW area, and quite the philanthropist to boot.
He loved sharing his great wealth with noble causes and charities, and foundations designed to help those less fortunate, especially to children in need. He told us he’d met with his pastors, that he’s right with God, and knows where he’s going. He mentioned he’d even gone back and made amends to those he might have offended from years past (which actually inspired me to action myself).
He was Happy mending fences. Happy seemed liberated, contented, and surrealistically optimistic. I guess that’s the way one feels when they know their influence for good in the world will continue on, even long after one’s passing. At the time, Happy told us his biggest and last remaining goal in life was to still be around to attend the Child Care Associates fund-raising luncheon in Fort Worth on Oct. 16, where he was to serve as Honorary Chairman.
He made it. With cane in hand and frail as he was, Happy was saluted and honored by the hundreds in attendance that day. The $1,000,000 goal for the charity was met with flying colors. It was his last public appearance. Happy once told me, "Charlie, you taught me how to be a man." I knew not of this sentiment and obviously, it was quite the exaggeration.
Still, I was flattered and felt honored and humbled he thought so highly of me, the flawed man I am. Should I have taught this kind, generous, highly respected soul anything, Happy taught me and a lot of others how to live in dying --- with dignity, generosity, gratefulness, courage, and faith.
Somebody once asked Happy in an interview what his secret was to maintaining this kind of attitude in the waning days of his life. For him it was found in the Old Testament scripture Proverbs 16:20: "Those that TRUST IN THE LORD will be HAPPY."
If any of us can only do as well. At the luncheon afterward, I approached my feeble friend for the last time. I told him of the great example and witness he was to me and so many others in life and in death. And I thanked him for being my friend, closing with these words: "Happy, I’ll see you on the other side."
He smiled and leaned over to me and with soft, strained whisper said, "I’ll be waiting."
And I believe him.
Charlie Norman has lived in Somervell County since 1994. He and his wife have two adult children, who graduated from Glen Rose schools. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.