The first time I met Russell, almost twenty years ago, he had just locked himself out of his house. And he was not happy about the situation. Over the course of the next two decades, he managed to lock himself out of the house just slightly more often than he misplaced his keys inside the house. Which was pretty often. It was an ongoing joke among our close friends. He received more than a few ridiculous hide-a-key tchotchkes for birthday presents. Our lawn, at times, resembled the Jockey Lot on a bustling Saturday afternoon, covered in gaudy decoys, like concrete frogs and Chia pets. (The only things missing were some boiled peanuts and funnel cake, both of which Russell was extremely fond.) Eventually, we just stopped locking the door. We joked we had nothing worth stealing anyway. The things that mattered most weren’t things, after all. Russell was happy knowing that he could always go home when he wanted to and there were no more obstacles preventing him from doing so.
Russell was always happy being home. He was comfortable in his chair, his spot on the couch, his place at the kitchen sink washing dishes and gazing out the window at the songbirds and daydreaming about his “stories”. He was comfortable with his thoughts. He was not afraid of the quiet. He was also, however, a great lover of people, of their energy and their unique ideas and perspectives. He loved to learn; I’ll never forget the day he first discovered this little website called Wikipedia. It took the place of his gold-leafed set of hardback encyclopedias that his mother reports he used to drag to the bathroom when he was potty training at the tender age of two. He was the epitome of a Renaissance Man; when he was in his twenties he rebuilt the engine to his 1967 baby blue Mustang (twice, actually) by reading the manual. He knew the etymology of every word he spoke and whether its root was Latin or Greek. And now, so do our children. He loved a good salon, explained helpfully by our friend, Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, ‘either to please or to educate’.” These were some of the values Russell held most dear – pleasing, educating, and just being at home in the company of like-minded souls.
Several years ago, Poppy wrote a poem at school about home that I’d like to share:
Where I’m From
by Poppy H. (age 7)
I am from a house that has a smooth front porch and scratchy carpet.
I am from a house that has lots of toys and cats.
And a dog.
I am from a noisy radio.
I always hear the news.
I am from Dad telling me stories every night.
We love all the stories.
I am from me playing the piano C to G over and over again.
I am from root beer and saucy pizza.
(It is so cheesy.)
I am from the smell of cat litter.
And also fresh crusty quiche and berries so juicy.
I am from warm hugs and kisses.
I am from Christmas,
Being the first one up and the last one asleep.
I am from cancer check-ups.
I am from laughing all the time.
I am from Slackajack and Butter – my favorite toys.
I am from love.
When Russell and I first met, we spent a lot of time adventuring, sometimes quite far away from home. Though he was born with a particularly rare and progressive congenital condition (affectionately known as Russell Hinson Bad Leg Disease), we enjoyed ten years (give or take) of some pretty amazing outings. We discovered the love of long-distance road biking together and looked forward to the Bakery Ride to Saluda every Sunday and the cross-state tour every spring. We participated in triathlon relays together, with our friend Vanessa, where Russell held down the bike leg like a pro. It was during a trip to a race in Maui when Russell proposed. We also enjoyed many a meandering hike, where I further learned of Russell’s curiosity about the natural world. He not only stopped to smell the roses, he stopped to watch skinks (which are not the same as lizards) scuttle up trees, he stopped to examine the mechanics of a solitary walking-stick bug, he stopped to look up leaves in his Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs so he could learn and memorize the scientific names of every tree in the southeastern woodlands, as well as the songbirds who lived there. (Cardinalis cardinalis is the only one I can actually remember off the top of my head.) During one particular favorite vacation to the Pacific Northwest, he lead the charge to the top of the Continental Divide, encouraging both me and my parents to stand atop a glacier field where only few others endured the journey to enjoy the view. We used to say about Russell that all who wander are not lost.
Even before Russell’s mobility became a challenge, he was a methodical and deliberate soul. His attention to detail was often at the expense of punctuality. He could easily spend two hours in the shower. He evened out the laces on his tied shoes so they were equal on both sides. He had the most impressively-groomed eyebrows in the house. He didn’t simply do things to do them. He took careful measure in the doing. One autumn day, I chided him for taking all afternoon to rake a small patch of leaves in the front yard. “Wouldn’t it be faster just to use a leaf blower?” I asked. He answered, “I wasn’t just raking leaves. I was working on my novel.”
My daughter said to me just the other day, “I sure am going to miss waiting for Dad.”
Unfortunately, the week our baby girl was born, Russell underwent a laminectomy (another word I learned from Russell) to remove a tumor in his spinal cord. This procedure bookmarked the point in time when the kids’ daddy developed his “boo-boo leg”, when he started walking with a distinguished cane, when he was no longer able to ride his bicycle or hike up mountains. This marked the time when Russell was home.
And Russell was home.
When the children came home from school, flinged their backpacks in the corner and threw off their shoes, they knew dad was home. When I took my shift carpooling neighborhood friends to and from (fill in the blank), I could drop off one of the possums and know that dad was home. While I enjoyed running most mornings, the kids were gently awakened by their dad because he was home.
Over the last few days, the kids and I have repeatedly noticed the echo of their father’s presence at home. Poppy observed, “I miss the way Daddy cleaned the bathroom sink after we brushed our teeth.” Mary Hazel remembered how he used to happily torture them with the exaggerated attack of “Monkey Paw and Raven Claw”, a tickling ritual that filled the family room with raucous laughter and loud squeals. Charlie wished yesterday that his father were here to watch Avatar with him on Saturday mornings because he was the only one who understood the epic battle between the Fire Nation and the Earth Benders at Ba Sing Se. Because Russell was home.
Russell was the sounds of home. The frequent tapping of the keyboard. The walker shuffling down the hall in the early pre-dawn hours because of stupid insomnia. The radio always being tuned to NPR even when nobody was in the room because the cats might get lonely. The sound of the Eastern towhees when he opened the windows on a spring day. “Drink your teeeaaaaa!” The microwave beeping periodically throughout the day as he heated up his tea, because it took him sometimes all day to fully enjoy one cup of the gentleman’s coffee. The lock on the door clicking not once, but always twice, at night when he put the house to sleep. The score to Fiddler on the Roof. Gillian Welch singing sad ol’ songs on his favorite Pandora station. The streaming water at the kitchen sink every time even one piece of silverware was left for longer than a minute. He was “Hey Baby and Hey Buddy” every time he greeted the twins. He was “Hey Lucy. How’s it going?” whenever the neighbor girl from across the street came over to play. He was “Sweet dreams. It’s time to close your eyes now,” when Mary Hazel pulled out just one more book to read before bed.
Russell was the smells of home. Dinner being warmed in the oven upon our return home from late soccer practices and chorus rehearsals. Fresh kitty litter in the laundry room. Dryer sheets. He was the smell of red wine and chocolate, and sometimes Southern Comfort. The fire log burning and crackling on the first chilly fall night. The smell of balsam and cedar and noble currant candles lit by his bedside. Deodorant soap and coconut shampoo.
Russell was the sights of home. He was standing at the front door on school day mornings waving goodbye to the children despite the difficulty he had getting there. Tidy piles of paperwork. A laptop that was never closed. An electric razor always plugged into the bathroom outlet because he shaved every day, even if he expected to see no one. Neat piles of laundry on the sofa, always a work in progress. His owl collection. His book collection. His birthday card collection, because he kept them all. He was consistently the last person the babies saw when they closed their eyes at night because he always promised to put up their rails and check on them “one more time”.
For the last couple of years, Russell was indeed home. And because of that, Russell was home.
We struggle to move one single thing that belonged to him because then it just wouldn’t be the same as it was when Russell was home. And, of course, how could it be? But aren’t we the lucky ones for the memories? The memories of a father who was always home, never away on business, never not having time for bedtime stories, never saying, “I’m too busy right now.” Aren’t we the lucky ones because he helped create a secure, loving, nest from which our fledglings can be brave and take flight, when the time comes. Aren’t we the lucky ones for knowing a man whose consistent, thoughtful, and kind ways are forever etched into the foundation of what we know as home? Poppy, Charlie, and Mary Hazel will always know what “home” feels like.
In large part, because Russell was home and, no matter what, he can never be locked out again.