By SEAN DIETRICH
He was tall, lean and young. When he approached me, he hugged me. Then, his mother hugged us both. A three-person club sandwich.
He must’ve been a foot taller than I was. His voice squeaked with adolescence. His skin was freckled. He had a long neck. He recognized me.
“I liked your books, sir,” he said, through a nervous stutter.
Sir? No way. Such titles are reserved for men who wear penny loafers when fishing.
“I read them all when I was in the hospital,” the boy went on. “I kinda got to know you, and it was like we were friends.”
His mother tells me his story. It’s a long one, and it’s not mine to repeat. But he has the determination of a saint, and he still has a long road ahead of him. He suffers more than other kids his age. And as things stand right now, he might not survive his struggle.
Before he walked away, he told me something. Something that stuck with me.
“You know what I do when I’m down?” he said. “I list ten things I love every day. I write’em on paper. My dad told me to do that.”
He tapped his finger against his head. “Gotta keep on thinking ‘bout things I love.”
I was mute. I couldn’t seem to find words. I noticed a large moon-shaped scar beneath his hairline. I tried to say something, anything, but I just smiled.
He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walked with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.
On the off-chance that he is reading this, I’ve come up with a few things I love:
1. I love Mexican food. In fact, I have had a lifelong love affair with it. A Mexican man I used to work with used to make a dish called “chilaquiles verdes.” Before work, he would fry corn tortillas and scrambled eggs, then crumble enough cotija cheese on top to short-circuit U.S. Congress. This heap of food would be served, covered in green sauce his wife made.
2. I love sweat. I know that sounds bizarre, but if I go too many days without breaking a sweat, I feel like I am not quite human. Yes, this creates more laundry for my wife. Yes, my wife threatens to string me up by my tongue if I change my shirt one more time. But I like sweating.
Once I was in Phoenix, Arizona, on business. A land where sweat evaporates before it accumulates. I didn’t have a good sweat for two weeks. Five minutes in the sun, your skin burns. Ten minutes; you turn into Lot’s wife.
I didn’t have a very good time.
3. Stray dogs. Sometimes I go to animal shelters just to visit them. There is an extra special place in my heart for dogs who live in shelters.
4. I like old movies. I don’t go for new movies. I don’t like special effects, blood, realistic explosions or music that sounds like two chainsaws having a cussing match. I enjoy Bogart, Hepburn, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Don Knotts, etc.
6. Hank Williams. Don Williams. Willie Nelson.
7. Old books that smell like dust. I like to hold them in my hand.
8. Love stories. I got an email yesterday from an old friend of mine. He got married to his high-school sweetheart after thirty years of beating around the bush. It was the perfect love story.
9. Old folks. Last week, I met a woman who was 100 years old. I hugged her neck. She was sipping a glass of wine with dinner. I asked her what the secret to a long life was. She answered, “Just try not to quit breathing.” Then she had a coughing fit.
10. You. You might not know this, but I think about you a lot. I know we don’t know each other, but that’s inconsequential — and may I point out, “inconsequential” is a five-syllable word.
Still, we’re probably not that different. Maybe we’re even alike. Maybe sometimes you worry too much. Or sometimes you get so swallowed up with tiny things in life, you wonder if you’re going to make it. Sometimes you wish you had answers. Lord knows, I don’t have any. But here’s what I DO know:
I know that a wise young man is likely reading this right now. A kid who told me he is grateful to be alive, no matter how brief his own life may be. A kid who told me that every so often, he makes a list on paper, like the one you just read. A list of good things. Simply to remind him of how much he loves breathing.
I wrote this for him. If for no other reason, to tell him that his name is at the top of another very important list I have going.