Send in the clowns / Don’t bother they’re hereStephen Sondheim
Every April 23 and 24th ish, D and I honor the memory of my parents’ births with sanctuary flowers for the Sunday service. This particular Sunday was serendipitous because my father’s best friend died the night before. Norris (Piggie) Caldwell was 92. He outlived my father by 10 years.
As close as their lifelong friendship turned out to be, their departures were ironically different. In a twist, my father was a prototype of healthy living pushed by the example of his father’s early demise.
He intuitively adapted to jogging, years prior to the advent of running shoes. He rarely smoked or drank. He ate colors of the spectrum. On the other hand, Piggie made no such association between lifestyle and longevity.
At my father’s death, Piggie said that he was mad at my father for going first as he was the one with heart trouble and chronic ailments. They had discussed their exits, and my father would be the one who they agreed would attend Piggie’s visitation and funeral. “Later I’ll have to let Bob know how he let me down,” Piggie said.
It was not love at first sight Piggie often recounted. Lottie Payne, Tupelo’s welcome agent, placed the sixteen year olds together knowing that they were both born in 1930. One day just about the time Piggie was leaving football practice with a case of sore legs, Ms Payne appeared coincidentally with “this newbie geek, Bob McKnight,” who cruised up on his bicycle. “I road on the back of this maniac’s bike to his house, as he hit all the bumps in the road,” Piggie said.
The story goes that my own grandmother and great grandmother greeted them and a family fusion of sorts erupted. “Well the creep, nerd, geek became my soul mate, pal, best friend and second brother,” he said. For years they were seldom apart until graduation where upon Piggie claimed a football/baseball scholarship to Ole Miss. My grandfather insisted on four years at Mississippi State for my father.
Later they cemented their bond back in Tupelo with wives, both named Mary Ann, who also became best friends. Piggie said, “It was like we had two sets of children.” And it always felt that way to me. Early in my life, Piggie and Mary Ann’s faces loomed as regularly as my own Mother and Father’s.
Even after our family’s move to Tennessee, the foursome remained strong until my mother’s death in 1990. They showed up for each other as if distance mattered not.
I suppose there was no slight of hand when mixed with the sanctuary flowers, the Sunday scripture was one of two friends on the road to Emmaus who “talked together of all these things which had happened.” In the presence of a mysterious third party, the friends came to a common understanding of suffering and the ultimate solution of breaking bread together.
Indeed a lifetime of breaking bread together made the difference to Bob and Piggie and also to all who observed them. Ultimately life was not as simple as expected when they doubled on the bike; but even as they gradually began to recognize life’s plight was beyond their control and leaned into faith – Piggie, a Bible carrying Christian, and my father, a free thinker – their union was blest by the tie of laughter that bonds.
As a friend once grieved a beloved friendship disrupted by opinions, “I thought we’d hold hands and roll down the hill together,” Piggie and my father did just that.
After my father’s passing, Piggie wrote to us: “Bob McKnight was the kindest, most faithful and loyal friend a person could have ever had.” This was only the reflection, I’m sure, of what he had been to my father.
These days I like to think of them together, young men testing their grill skills in the Caldwell’s back yard, and still later sitting on the sidelines in a silent but common frivolity.
Often they were compelled to enact a short concert of the ant band, a little something they came up with as teens which had the immediate power to send them into explosive laughter.
In unison, they would emit a tiny, almost imperceptible brass rendition of the Stars and Stripes Forever as if an ant band was in session.
God bless the tie; here they go again.