I was at home trying to come to terms with reading in this newspaper that my friend Charlie Hensley had died unexpectedly when his daughter, Shannon, called. When I got to the house an hour or so later, they'd just gotten the autopsy report that revealed he'd died from a blood clot that traveled from his leg to his heart. Though their clocks had stopped and sadness hung touchable in the air around them, they were finding some consolation in the fact that he'd died quickly - that he didn't suffer.
Knowing that Charlie and I shared a love of reading, his wife, Sheila, wanted me to see his collection of books - especially his poetry - so she and her children, Shannon, Nathan, and Caleb, along with their spouses, guided me from room to hallway to room; up the stairs and back down again to peruse row upon row of books. Stories about husband and father and his passion for words wrapped around us as we stood or sat in front of bookcases or pulled free an old hardback to touch and smell. I discovered I have many of the same books - or books by the same authors - but not nearly so many of them. It's without question the finest personal library I've ever come across.
I've never been one to have the kind of friends that email, phone or contact me to do things together on anything like a regular schedule, preferring instead to approach friendship as a string of serendipitous surprises wrapped around each day's coming and going.
Another way of describing this kind of friendship is "low maintenance". It will come as no surprise to anyone who knew Charlie that he was this kind of friend to me, as he was the personification of a low maintenance guy. That is, he was not emotionally needy, insecure, prone to over dramatization, stuck up, or in need of the latest expensive gadget to demonstrate his worth. Nor did he require continual reassurance that he was okay.
Put simply, he was secure, unselfish and easygoing. One of the most inquisitive men I've ever met. A joy to be around.
This was in no small part because of his easy smile and unrelenting sense of humor. Puns and jokes flowed from the man nonstop. If it was a groaner, all the better. (Sheila told me people asked her countless times over the years, "Does he behave this way at home?" to which she always replied with a smile, "Yes he does.") Being a scholar and wordsmith, he loved to play word games, many of which left those around him with dumbfounded looks on their faces as if to say, "What the heck is he talking about?" Some got the joke a day or two later, some never did. For example, he once said to me, "J.T., do you realize that if country music starwere to marry Tony Lama, the maker of high quality cowboy boots, she'd be a Dolly Lama."
Although he worked as a minister in the area for most of his life - beginning with his arrival in 1971 as a longhaired member of the Jesus movement and going on to be a founding member of the Open Door Fellowship Center, operate, with wife Sheila, Hosanna House Bookstore, and serve on the board of Birthright as well as offer pastoral care at Mt. Carmel Medical Center - Charlie and I didn't spend much time talking about religion.
Don't misunderstand, we talked plenty about God, Buddha, mysticism, grace, love, awe, transcendence and Jesus but he never once gave me the impression that his way of praising God or living a spiritual life was the right way to go. He put forth attraction rather than promotion. As Rev. Don Talent put it in his remarks at his funeral, "Charlie was willing to stand back and let God be God."
We also talked a lot about poetry and poets., Maxine Kumin, , Jo McDougall, , , and many more. In fact, we ran across one another more at local poetry readings than in church seeing as how I'm Catholic and he was Christian.
Another poet we both appreciated was the Muslim mystic Rumi. I happened across this poem by him the day after Charlie's Funeral. Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form. The child weaned from mother's milk now drinks wine and honey mixed. God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box, from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed. As roses up from ground.
Sunflowers were Charlie's favorite flower. His daughter, Shannon, told me he kind of thought of them as having personalities. I can understand this, since, at sunrise, their faces turn towards the east and, over the course of the day, they move and track the sun across the sky. A good metaphor for Charlie. Only it wasn't his face that tracked the sun, it was his radiance and warmth that caused the faces of people (especially children if he was entertaining and teaching them with Gates the puppet) to light up, turn and track him.
Despite all the splendid memories I have of Charlie I still can't believe he's gone. Expect to see him sauntering out the student center at PSU with theunder his arm like I did most mornings as I arrived for work. Even more so since he's exactly my age.
Brings to mind an assertion by, another writer we discussed from time to time, that we'd best remember we're all hanging on by a hairŠand what's more we're twisting in the wind.
Of course I know Charlie wouldn't want me to take it so serious. If I mentioned Merton's "hanging on by a hair" quote to him he'd likely smile mischievously and tell me, as he did someone else recently when they pointed out the bald area where once he sported shoulder length hair, "You know God is said to know and count every hair on our heads, I'm just makin' it a little easier on Him."