by Laura Gatmaitan Perez
I was born late.
We met when my life had just started, flowing into the vast ocean, while his was ebbing away. He had just been discharged from the hospital, looking tiny and withered as he lay on his bed.
I looked around his room and found comfort in the stunning photograph of a young man, his classic profile cut against the sky.
In the days that followed, I would be a frequent visitor. His door was never locked so I would gently knock and go right in. He would come out of his room, holding his oxygen tank and looking pleasantly surprised.
We talked briefly at first. I would ask about the peacock and roosters on his ranch. Later, we warmed up to each other and he started sharing his salad days as YMCA coach in Los Angeles. His eyes would lit up as he recalled winter in Lockwood Valley.
“I can still see the beautiful secluded pinion and sagebrush country sloping up to lofty Mt Pinos. All day every day to hike and explore and to get acquainted with the wild creatures that abounded there: coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, jackrabbits, and innumerable birds. Some chickadees would answer my call and land on my shoulders as I returned home. And condors! Almost every day I would see them soaring around the sky. A gigantic condor swooped down out of the mist as I climbed a ridge. I could hear the swish of his wings and see him turn his head to look at me.”
Having lived much of my life in the city, I could only imagine how infinitely more exciting his world was. He seemed to guess it with my empty stare.
During my next visits, he told me about his family, particularly his younger brother Quin and a friend named Jamie. He said they spent a lot of time in an abandoned cabin on Tehachapi Mountains.
He excitedly narrated how he found three records which he played in a little hand-winding phonograph.
“When I’d get home at night from a long day in the woods I’d fire up the old wood stove, have something to eat, and then listen to my music: Beethoven’s 6th (Pastoral) symphony; a collection of Chopin’s piano sonatas including my favorites 20th and 21st and a strange old record that had just one number on it: Serenade, Pierne. A cello solo.”
Somehow, his stories calmed my restless spirit. I could almost hear the faint echoes of Beethoven’s symphony as he described it.
“It has a storm in it, and then quiet music with violins playing away in the background, and I remember one night when Jamie came. It was cold outside the little cabin, maybe even snowing; you could barely see the dark pine trees through the window, but very cozy inside with the warm fire and lantern, and that grand music sure sounded good.”
Gradually, I came almost daily to hear more stories of long ago, his recollections of endless explorations in the woods. I could listen to this man for hours without getting bored.
One morning, I saw him struggling to walk past our gate. I ran outside to meet him, wondering what made him come to my place when he knew I would drop by his home any time.
He was holding a thick scholarly book by Louis Untermeyer: Makers of the Modern World – The lives of 92 writers, artists, scientists, statesmen, inventors, philosophers, composers and other creators who formed the pattern of our century. I considered it a big compliment that he believed I was up for it.
That was the last time I saw him.
Decades later, I would understand why someone could distill his entire life into one pure moment of joy – when he saw a face in the crowd and love blossomed. No doubt he found peace in her presence, in such a memory, toward the end of his life.
That is exactly what I found in Sam. If I were to fall in love again, it wouldn’t consume me like fire but would come like a breeze to still my soul.