For nearly 20 years I have been patronizing a small video store on a country road near my home. Over the years I got to know the proprietor, an amiable otherwise-retired chap named Don. Don and I regularly schmoozed over the counter about movies, our families, our dogs, and philosophies of life.
Don’s beloved pooch had gone over the rainbow bridge a few years earlier, and when I introduced him to my dog Munchie, Don lit up like a 5-year-old boy at Christmas. He abruptly shifted from checkouts, snuggled Munchie on the counter and magically produced dried chicken strip treats from behind his back. It didn’t take Munchie long to figure Don’s M.O., and he would start jumping in the car when we turned onto the video store’s street. Once in the door, Munchie would make a wild dash behind the counter, where Don would love him up and produce the coveted poultry reward. (Later I learned that dogs in the hood regularly found their way to the store without their owners.)
Nearly everyone who worked in the store was Don’s family. Even though they all lived far away, they would take turns coming to work for several-month stints. Over time I met Don’s wife, sons, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. The business was a family affair.
If you liked a particular actor, you were in luck. All the Brad Pitt films were on one shelf, Kevin Costner another, Julia Roberts another, and so on. No, Toto, I don’t think we’re at Blockbuster anymore.
Once, when I was preparing to present a weekend seminar on inspirational cinema, I took out about 20 films to show short clips to the participants. When I explained the project to Don at checkout, he refused to take my money.
"It’s for educational purposes," he noted. "They’re on the house." He also never charged me for late returns.
Across from the counter on the side of a display rack was a tall, thin poster advertising an old Disney animated flick. On it, the heights of customers’ kids were recorded with horizontal lines accompanied by their names. I found it touching to watch Jonah’s mark rising from year to year. Even though I never met the kid, it felt gratifying to know that somewhere out there a boy was becoming a young man.
A few months ago, Don’s son announced that the family was selling the store. Don, now at age 86, otherwise in remarkably good health, had had a few knee surgeries and it was getting harder for him to navigate the terrain of the shop. Don would be moving far away to be with his family, and closing the chapter of his life that interfaced him with the movies, kids and dogs he loved, as well as the buttered popcorn smell that permeated from the in-store microwave, and the array of candy and red licorice at the checkout.
Although saddened to hear of the end of an era, I was happy that Don’s family loved him enough to take him home and give him the support he needed. A large sign invited all the customers, "Come say aloha to Don next Friday night, 6-8 p.m." Dee and I were disappointed that we would be away that night, but we made a note to visit Don at his home upon our return.
That meeting was eventful for me. Don answered the door spryly in his wheelchair and invited us to sit at a couch surrounded by cardboard moving boxes. As I sat in his home, I realized that I had a real relationship with this man. Our friendship crept up on me gradually, until Don had a place in my heart equal to other people I loved. Now I was going to miss him.
Don proudly pulled out the photo album that recorded his going away party. There were lots of people I knew: parents, kids and dogs posing with their elder friend amid colorful balloons. Everyone contributed to a colorful scrapbook with notes of thanks, poems, and little kids’ crayon drawings of Don and the store. In his own quiet way, Don had touched many lives. It wasn’t just the dogs who received treats when they entered. Everybody got a good feeling.
The time came for us to leave, and though we tried to hold back, we all shed a tear. Don was moving far, far away, and we would most likely not see each other again. Goodbyes don’t come easily to me, especially maybe-not-again-in-this-life-goodbyes. Then Don told us in a chipper tone, "Well, I guess I’ll see you in heaven."
His candor – and vision – struck me. I sat silent for a moment and nodded.
"Yes, I will look forward to seeing you again in heaven," I replied. With that, Dee and I rose and exited.
I remained choked up for the entire ride home. I realized I had been privileged to know a very holy man. Not holy in the sense that he wore robes, talked to or about God, and did miracles. Holy in that that he has lived with extraordinary kindness, presence and generosity. On second thought, I guess he did do miracles. In a world where fear, protectionism and separateness seem to rule, Don reversed those conditions in his little shop on a country road.
Maybe I don’t need to wait till we get to heaven to see Don again, because he made the earth a little more like heaven. In his own quiet way.