He Gave Me Shelter


Social media being the thing we often love to hate, Facebook did serve a purpose in delivering news this week that a good friend of our family had passed away suddenly in Winston-Salem. My daughter in Memphis sent around the news to my now far flung brood and we took turns emailogizing our friend David.

David, heading to work, Monday morning

David, heading to work, Monday morning.

While their family begins the slow, unwelcome process of figuring out how life will be without a husband, father, grandfather, brother, I feel so blessed that I followed my instincts to go to Winston when I was on the road two summers ago, in pursuit of all things off the leash.  Aside from my children and siblings, David and his wife Mitzi (she and I used to load up my mini-van with her kids and mine and head to the swimming pool…) were among the top five people in the United States with whom I really wanted to reconnect. I drove all the way to North Carolina mostly just to see them. They had been good neighborsI wrote about neighbors in my book, a composite of people who’ve shared my life, from next door.

“There’s an intimacy with your neighbors that you don’t even have with your best friends. You see neighbors fetching the paper in their boxers in the front yard, their kids show up with sticky fingers and dirty faces which you automatically wash. You see husbands and wives kissing each other goodbye in the driveway, you borrow eggs and oil and sugar. You spot the old man sneaking a cig on the back porch, teenagers crawling in at the crack of dawn, fights you’re not supposed to hear over TVs turned up too loud, and through the sheers on the windows, you see the old man asleep on the couch, all the lights still on, with nobody telling him to come to bed. You hear beer bottles clanking in the recycle bin on Saturday morning, pots banging around in the kitchen at supper time, the scent of their brand of detergent coming out of the dryer vent. There’s an intimacy in being neighbors. These had been good ones.”

If I have one small comfort, it lies in the absence of regret. Thank God I went to see them in the summer of 2011. I’ll never forget how funny David was on the phone. I was on the outskirts of town, running late, I figured they were waiting supper, so I called to say I was on my way. David answered. He had a real deep voice and a deep North Carolina accent. “David! What are you up to?” I asked, to which he replied, “waitin’ on you.”

It had been ten years since I’d seen him and Mitzi, a million things had happened to me and the kids during that time. But here they were, in their kitchen with the floral wallpaper and white cupboards, steak dinner, bottle of red wine and pound cake with maple glaze for dessert. I felt like visiting royalty.

But perhaps the most lasting gift from David, for a woman who has felt like a refugee for much of her life, and especially when I was out on the road for lo those many miles, was that for one night, somebody else was standing watch. I realize it’s a Freudian thing, this desire to have one more person standing between you and the boogey man and preferably a big strappin’ man, but at the end of the night, after he and Mitzi and I talked ourselves hoarse, he took Libby out one last time before we all went to bed. My God, what a luxury for a gal who’d been watching her back at every truck stop, rest area and motel parking lot from Toledo to Tupelo. That simple, sweet gesture stuck with me. 

“Do you remember what it felt like, when you were a child, and no matter what kind of chaos might have been going on in your house, do you remember how good it felt to go to sleep knowing there were grown ups at home?  It was comforting to know there was another layer between you and disaster. There was somebody else to get the dog in,  lock the door, turn off the lights, call the fire department if the drapes caught on fire or the pipes burst. There was somebody else on duty to walk the floors waiting for a tardy teen, somebody else to plunge the toilet, reset the circuit breaker, take out the trash, or scoop the dead possum off the grass before the dog rolled in it. I’m sure a shrink could have a field day with my apparent residual psychosis of being a single parent for more than 4,200 days and nights.  I’m just saying. It was a luxury, a throw back to my quasi-protected youth, falling asleep with somebody else manning the guard shack. I slept like a baby that night, with Libby mischievously hopping up on the bed some time in the middle of the night. I woke up to the soft light of a Carolina summer morning.”

I am so sad that he’s gone. David was a Vietnam vet, served in the  U.S. Air Force, was awarded the USAF Air Medal, USAF Vietnam Service Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He retired from AT&T after 30 years and was a Cub Scout Pack Leader, Assistant Troop leader and deacon in the Moravian Church. He was humble. He was funny as hell. He raised four kids and was a devoted husband. He passed away in his sleep, next to his wife. 

And in some weird full-circle way, I guess one can make connections to suit one’s purposes, but for the past few months, as I have struggled to get my feet back on the ground after dropping out two years ago, I have sometimes wondered if I was a fool to do so. As much as I have written and pontificated about listening to your gut, following your dreams, life is short, or as my mother used to say, “let the devil take the hind most,” the fact of the matter is, it is hard to recover from obliterating your entire financial structure to take a year off to write a book.  In my heart I know it was worth it, but try explaining that to Wells Fargo. 

And then, I get the sad news that my friend has passed and I am so grateful that I went when I did. Doubts erased. Even now, he gives me shelter.

Here’s his son, Tyler, playing guitar.  God rest your sweet soul, my friend.

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About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Jean–How fortunate your friend David was to go so peacefully. It’s how (I assume) we all want to go.

    You could let Mitzi know that there are people all over the country–people who never had the pleasure of knowing David–who are mourning him. All because of your book…

    • Thank you Sioux. You are such a dear fan. I’ve just been catching up on comments on the blog and realized I had not responded to a friend of a friend who passed away in June — a fellow who found me via the Internet and had followed my travels back in 2011. He was just so nice, only 59. Need we be reminded of the privilege of breathing?

  2. Michael Baugh says:

    Thanks for posting this update Jean. You were so lucky to know him, and he to know you. You chronicled part of his life along side yours. You put his truth into words, proof he existed. He mattered. How can that not be immortality?

    • Thanks, Michael. That’s our deal, isn’t it, really? Letting folks know they matter. I think that’s all we really want to know about ourselves, then you come right down to it. Peace, bro.

  3. Beverly Whatley says:

    Jean, so precious. Our friends just fill our hearts with love, understanding and hope. When they pass it will just be memories but they will stay with you forever. This proves that the trip and the book was so important in so many ways that you will continue to learn over and over again.

    • Thanks for the affirmation, Bev. Easy to fall prey to self-doubt when the only calls you get in a given day are from people wanting to know when you’re gonna pay the bill! Onward.

  4. connie dunavin says:

    Beautiful story of David, of how miles & years do not measure the bond of friendship; How God can set us on a path for reason’s unknown at the time. Beautiful purpose. Beautiful music, so full of the words that only a guitar can say. That only the heart can feel. Beautiful expression of humility & strength. Beautiful life; fleeting, bold, fragile. David may not be where he was, but he will be wherever you are. Beautiful friend, neighbor, tribute. Beautiful you.
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Out in Oklahoma.