We began meeting every month or so after I moved to Florida a decade ago. Both of us attended the same graduate writing program in Vermont and had met while sharing the dorm floor that had been reserved for the men in the program. He was a bit older than me by a good ten or fifteen years, but we shared a love of stories, and our difference in ages didn't matter much. He was slightly deaf and wore hearing aids, and it wasn't always easy to talk to him--sometimes I had to shout and he didn't always understand what I was saying--but I enjoyed hanging out with him.
When I moved with my family to Florida's west coast, just south of Tampa, I learned that Chuck lived only a few minutes away. He was the one friend who I had in the area and the only other writer who I knew here. To welcome me to town, he offered to meet me at the old Melody restaurant on the Tamiami Trail. That was the beginning of what Chuck called our "literary" lunches.
After that meal, we arranged to meet for monthly lunches at local coffee shops, and we talked about our works-in-progress and how we had submitted our manuscripts to certain editors or agents, and we shared news about ongoing research and our hopes for future projects. Chuck was always full of enthusiasm. If either of us had experienced rejection since the last time we met, he'd simply laugh it off, and we'd move on to the next plan or project. That was Chuck's way. He was a retired military officer. He'd learned how to view obstacles like rejection as a temporary impediment. He taught me to keep writing.
For the past few years I've watched from the sidelines as Chuck struggled with the early onset of Alzheimer's, a disease that robbed his mother of her memory and now is robbing him of his. He often joked about it during our lunches, refusing to let the disease keep him from what he loved--writing stories for children--and he continued doing his research for stories as long as he could remember what he was working on. A few weeks ago, though, his family decided it was time to move him from his home to a "memory care" facility. So last weekend I met him for one of our "literary" lunches at his new home.
He was easy to spot. As soon as I walked into the main lobby, I saw him. He was the tall man with the erect military bearing and bright smile, and, thank goodness, he was still alert enough to spot me and lift a hand over his head to wave.
We sat together in the empty dining room for a little while. As in our literary lunches over the past ten years, I shared news of what I was working on and what I planned for future projects. Of course, Chuck wasn't able to share plans for his own work in progress. I knew he had stopped writing months, if not years, ago. But I shared my work with him anyway, and he nodded and smiled, continuing to show the same enthusiasm that he always displayed.
He still flashed the broad smile that I remembered whenever I told him a joke or shared a piece of news that he found humorous. His eyes still sparkled with the same joy in life, and they held, if you looked deeper, the same fierce determination that he'd always shown toward writing. Except now it wasn't determination to keep writing despite rejection that I saw in his eyes. It was a fierce hope that he could keep what remained of his memory as long as possible.
When it came time to say goodbye, he said that he hoped he'd only have to spend another few weeks at the facility before he returned home. A moment later he expressed worry that he'd lost his room key, which I pointed out to him was attached to his wrist by a spring-like bracelet.
I turned to wave one more time as I walked out the door and saw him surrounded by others who had fallen further down the hole of memory loss. He lifted his hand over his head to wave. He was still smiling.
I'll see him again for another one of our "literary" lunches in a month or so. I'll share with him news of what I'm working on, just as I've always done, and I'll let him know some of my plans for the future.
And I know Chuck will share with me what he's always shared--his enthusiasm for life, his passion for stories (even if he can no longer remember them), and his determination to keep going, despite the obstacles awaiting him, even when the future is unclear.