A while back, my globe trotting niece Niki Starks made the drive out to our place in Taylor. We spent most of the afternoon categorizing some of the old family pictures I had haphazardly thrown into a box. There were a lot of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Pictures of my great grandmother, a woman I barely remember from my childhood.
I remember, at that moment, thinking just how old she looked, and she was old…94 years old. I remember attending her funeral as a young boy. My family has the custom of open casket funerals. Me? I think that practice is grotesque, but that’s just me. I’d rather my last mental image of a person be one of laughing and joy. I remember looking down on my great grandmother’s corpse and thinking she looked better laying there dead than she did the last time I saw her alive.
And that’s the thing…
The things we remember and the way we remember them. The four hours that Niki and I spent at our dining room table was probably the most important four hours I’ll spend for the rest of my life.
Often, I think of myself as a 61 year old orphan. Silly really…thinking of yourself like that when you are in your 60s. What solidifies that in my mind is that fact that I am the only one left alive in my direct family.
Both my parents died from various cancers and heart/liver disease. That didn’t take a psychic to see coming, given they both smoked and drank like they were in training for an Olympic event. My kid brother died in a nasty head-on truck wreck at 3:44 in the morning less than a mile from his home. I’m fairly sure that’s the time he died, because that’s the time the cracked and bent face of his watch bore when it was given to me. My sister dropped from sight shortly after receiving her share of our brother’s estate. Addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, there’s little doubt why she cannot be found. Odds favored her dying in an alley somewhere or in a cheap motel room that one of her “friends” paid for. I am still scouring the Internet for her death certificate. My older half brother Bill, Niki’s dad…he died in the hospital from heart failure. He was my boyhood hero.
So I’m pretty much it. I am my family historian. I am the person who people come to when they have questions about their uncle Mark or their grandmother Lois. I’m the guy who can explain a certain picture…telling them the history of the photo and talking to them about the person within the frame.
As Niki and I sorted through the pile of photographs and began categorizing them into proper family trees and lineage, I ran across one which stopped me cold. I don’t think I took a breath for about 30 seconds. I gazed at that old picture…one of those really old pictures which came back from the drug store with the date in the bottom corner and then again on the back.
It was 1961. I was standing outside in my front yard, wearing the new Zorro costume my mom had bought for me. No, it wasn’t Halloween or even for Halloween. She bought it because I bugged her until she did. It was a hot summer day in Villa Grove, Illinois. The picture was taken just a bit too far away to see any real detail of the costume, but it was easy enough to see that it was me.
And that stopped me cold. Still and cold. That picture of that little boy is the reason I am telling you this story.
Most of you might know that I have recently undergone a life changing surgery. The throat cancer which my doctors had declared in remission almost three years ago was trying to weasel its way back onto my larynx. Chances were that the condition would remain “pre-cancerous” for twenty years. There was also the chance that it would bloom back into the black, rotting, and insidious disease that would ultimately kill me. I had come too far…too far to take any chance of it coming back. The fight had been too hard and too costly just to let it have its way with me now.
I elected for a laryngectomy. The full removal of the larynx and possibly part of the esophagus and lymph nodes. As the anaesthesiologist began his work, I realized that my world would indeed be different when I woke up, chiefly because I would no longer be able to speak.
And son of a gun if I wasn’t right.
When I was released from the hospital, I hit the ground running…and fell unceremoniously on my ass. Okay, take two. Let’s try this again. Maybe easing back into my routine was the prudent thing to do, or so suggested the goodest of my bestest friends, Uncle Ed McNerd. It gives me no real pleasure to report that he was right. I hate when that happens. Fortunately, his gloating was subdued, out of fairness I am guessing. Who picks on a sick guy anyway?
The first thing that had to be dealt with was the official Reglue phone, a cell phone because I can go a day or two without setting foot in the shop. We have set it up now to reject calls immediately with a message that I can best be reached by email or text. That’s worked mostly fine…so far anyway. There’s a bit of irony there somewhere…the guy who’s going to help you with whatever you need can’t talk to return your call. Yeah, we’re working that out as we go.
I spend at least four hours every other day at the shop. Pete Salas is there on and off as well, getting stuff done. It’s not like there are cobwebs and large root systems taking hold around the desks and furniture.
It was within one of those four hour blocks of time that an extremely good friend of Reglue came in to see how things were going and began questioning my return to work so soon after a major surgery. He knew I had already done two installs since I had come back and I’m sure his heart was in the right place. He left with a promise to return and visit some more the next day.
True to his word, he did…and he brought another friend.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t merely a visit…it was an intervention. With pad in hand, the other friend was taking notes. Oh yeah, I didn’t tell you that the friend works at a newspaper from a town in the vicinity. What it boiled down to was a simple question: What was being done that couldn’t be done in another two weeks? While I was formulating an answer to his question, the next remark hit the floor with a thud hard enough to jiggle the local junior college seismograph.
“Don’t you think this might be a good time to hand over the reins or to dismantle the program? You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.” Again, he is an extremely good friend and I believe he had my best interests at the heart of this.
I didn’t know what to say. Was this maybe being presented by proxy for another director? The only thing making any noise for the next 30 seconds were the ceiling fans. Then the second part of his words disturbed the air.
“You’ve done enough Ken. Maybe it’s time to let someone else have a go at this. What’s the point of struggling through your recovery while manning Reglue. It’s not like you have any obligation to anyone to do this further. No one would blame you for taking your retirement and enjoying it.”
And then I smiled. And then I understood. I understood why a picture from decades ago had jolted me so.
I didn’t understand the friends standing in front of me. I didn’t understand any ulterior motives that might be in play. I didn’t understand anything that pertained to that moment in time.
I understood a skinny little boy standing out in front of his house, proudly wearing the Zorro costume his mom had bought him. I understood the hopes and dreams that little boy might have had. The dreams I know that he kept locked within him. I understood that the boy wasn’t staring into a camera. He was staring across time, looking at me and trying to tell me to be the man that he wanted to grow up to be.
Many of you have emailed and texted me and asked me to take it slow and even take some more time off. Some of you have walked into my shop and suggested that it might be time to pull the shingle hanging from the door.
I’m not anything except a guy doing what he wants to do. I’m no martyr…the word hero has been used in the past few months. Stop that please. I’m nothing but a man trying to fulfill the hopes and dreams of a little boy standing in his front yard in Villa Grove, Illinois in 1961.
I’m just going about it much quieter than the little boy expected.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue