I could not wish for Luby Small to rest in peace, because he never, ever gave anything to The World That We Share other than peace, among many other gifts that we folks may often only fantasize of giving.
My father met Luby’s dad, Mr. Small, back when our family lived in Augusta, Maine, and Mr. Small was some manner of co-worker with my dad, as well as a pal. The two guys kept up a relationship after our family moved down to Portland. Mr. Small probably needed help with a CPA-related thing, and my dad, always with the eye for service work for a friend, put my mom, baby Charles, and me into the VW, and we rode the fifty-odd miles north to Waterville, where resided the Small family.
We got there, parked the VW, rang a bell, and walked up a couple short flights of stairs. On the second floor, there were the accustomed pleasantries between the adults. I tried to scope it all out. At my age of about eight years, I had mostly seen house-type homes. A walk-up apartment, within which a whole family dwelled, was new to me. Surely, any new environment is something which is to mentally process and quickly adapt. I felt an immediate warmth and comfort. It smelled nice there.
For me to assimilate next, of course, were the New People. We were met by Mr. and Mrs. Small, and by their daughter, Jean, in their kitchen. Jean was in her early teens, to me, a lot like another adult. She introduced herself, and she gave me a warm, confident smile that put me at ease. She and her parents used little effort to make we four Chandlers feel welcome. I happily accepted a glass of ginger ale out of the Smalls’ refrigerator and homespun kindness ...and with ice cubes in it.
After the pleasantries and my ginger ale, Mrs. Small and my mom left the kitchen to bond as women and to change Charlie’s diaper. My dad and Mr. Small plonked out their paperwork on the kitchen table. Jean took my hand and radiated, “Let’s go play with Luby.”
On the ride up to Waterville, my folks had told me that there was a kid around my age named, Luby, at the Smalls’ house and that I’d have a playmate. My thoughts danced. Throughout my young life, I had experienced, other than with cousins, only short, transient relationships with boys and girls my own age. Circumstance, not my adults, was responsible for this, but over my eight years, person to person, place to place, time to time, lives and deaths, I hadn’t gotten a much of a grasp of permanence. New friendships, to my young mind, were always welcome, yet I figured them as fleeting to me as I thought my new friendships were to them. I was excited to meet this Luby. Jean, I could see, was far more sophisticated than I, yet, from what I knew of girls, I was sure she’d rather play with dolls than to go in for my car, gun, action style of play.
Jean and I turned from the apartment’s short hallway into the family room, and the floor was somehow, neatly, cleanly, strewn with lots of basic toys and lots of books for kids to read and books of puzzles and crayons and pencils and pads of paper and boxes of jigsaw puzzles. And it wasn’t a mess. It looked like it all belonged right where it was.
“Luby!” Jean called, “Michael is here!”
Luby bounded awkwardly out of his bedroom toward me in his pajamas. He was pie-eyed with excitement to meet me, as I had been to meet him.
“Hi, Michael!” and he wrapped his arms around my far shorter shoulders.
I was surprised, taken quite aback, and, I must admit, somewhat revolted. Luby was severely mentally challenged, and that, due to hydrocephalus; he had what used to be called, “water on the brain.” His head was huge, his body, developed to hold his head up, was gangly. His smile sprang from his face in an unabashed way that I had never experienced. He was, as stated, taller than me, and he expressed far more immediate affection toward me than any of my grandmothers, great-aunts, or kissy, elderly neighbor ladies could ever muster. I cast a nervous glance at Jean. She beamed, saintly. Luby released me.
“Do you wanna play?” he asked, indicating the piles of stuff on the floor.
“Yeah, let’s play,” Jean answered for us all.
What a cruel trick my parents had played on me, setting me up in my child’s imagination for a new playmate. I was their rube. They had brought me up on this damn car ride to shunt me off while they did their adult things, onto a type of person that I wondered if they’d have invited over to their house. What a rip-off!
“Okay,” I answered.
Play we three did, and challenging, mentally stimulating play. Jean was intelligent, patient with us boys, gentle, encouraging, engaging, and that made her all the more, to my eight-year-old sensibilities, pretty.
Luby was fascinating. For all the toys and puzzles and books, which I knew for a fact he had played with again and again, each one seemed brand new to him. He showed and shared each one to me with openness and originality. Did we play!
Jean and I read aloud, to Luby Small’s delight. We all three played with cars and trains and the jigsaw puzzles. We built blocks, and until that afternoon, wooden blocks as a childhood recreation were beneath me. I learned. I didn’t learn about the complexities of reading words or those of toy cars and trains and building blocks, but I learned of simplicity. Between us three, there was no disparity. We were equals. What one lacked was shared for all by another.
I kept looking into Luby’s face and eyes and comportment to see or to perceive something; I knew not then, what. It was obvious that Jean had some of whatever that “what” was. She radiated it, and I somehow knew it was gotten from Luby. It was a purity, an innocence, a transmitted, transmittable comfort. It was a unifying, underlying ease. It was contagious. It filled the room, the heart, the mind, the soul. For goodness’ sake, it was in the toys and the puzzles and the books.
The adults said it was time for lunch, so we all had sandwiches and some more ginger ale together, and Jean played a few LP record sides that straddled everyone’s generational difference. Music. It seemed natural that Luby had even influenced the musical choices. Harmony was among us all, polarized, I have to say, by Luby. Nobody among all eight of us was the center of attention.
After lunch, it was time for the Chandlers to depart the Smalls’ home and Waterville, Maine, but not for good. We visited their place a few more times, and I hope we all experienced the same human magic that was present the first time. I know I did.
I have been of the mindset to try, in childhood and adulthood, to replicate a formative experience, but nobody in my life could do it like Luby. It was always like the first time we met. The Small family got us up to some lakeside cottage that they had rented for a long weekend one summer, and Mr. and Mrs. Small taught me how to eat and enjoy a lobster. Luby’s and my wading around among the minnows and the reeds was as original, as fun, and as memorable to me as any of our times together. We played and played and laughed and laughed and talked and talked.
A few years later, having not seen the Smalls during that time, and things being what they are in our societal lack of true observance of our friends and neighbors, we got a telephone call.
Luby had been riding in the school bus reserved for very special people. There weren’t too many convenient roads linking towns in the Great State of Maine, so the bus was making a short, daily trip on the interstate highway. Sitting across the aisle from the driver was Luby, being his gregarious, innocent, chatty self. The chain broke on a lumber truck in front of the school bus, and a long two-by-four smashed through the windshield and lanced Luby into his delicate, oversized, dear, dear cranium. It did not pierce either his heart or his soul. Luby lingered, comatose for several weeks, and I do believe that this was his penultimate gift to his loving family.
His final gift was given, at least to me, and I hope, several others.
We drove back up to Waterville, just me, mom, and dad, for Luby’s wake. I had been to several such ceremonies, so I walked immediately to his open casket, not out of curiosity, or anger, or grief, or a notion of loss, not to see, but only to be. Just like Luby.
I knelt, and I looked into his face and his being, searching for what he had, just like I did when we met. Just like what I had stopped doing during our times together and had simply accepted. That which I had begun to learn.
The top of his head was swathed in gauze. The make-up person at the funeral home must have had the easiest job of his or her career. Luby’s beatific face was what was very probably shone upon his proud new parents on the day he was born. The purity, innocence, emanation of care for others, then still alive in Luby’s countenance, could not have been augmented by a human hand. I glowed then, as he would have unknowingly prompted me in his living innocence. At peace was he, and so was I. He filled the room.
Thank you, Luby Small, for showing me and those around you a fragment of true peace, for which I still look to you so curiously, to vaguely understand, and thank you for your artless example of goodness, rarely duplicated, that you carried with impossibly unselfish ease.