It is Sunday night 8 pm. The doorbell rings and Joanna and I both are running down the stairs to see who it is. Our hearts feel like they want to jump out of our chests, our minds are rushing; the thoughts are chasing each other with the speed of light inside our skulls. We do not look at each other, we do not stop on our way down, yet we both know that we both think it must be Russell. Who else would ring the bell on Sunday at 8 pm, unannounced. The feeling is eerie, just as the empty porch is, as we stumble down to open the door. It cannot be Russell, Russell is dead. We received the news barely 24 hours ago.
I met Russell about 10 years ago. We were at a party and I was followed by this strange looking funnily dressed man all night, at least it felt like it. He popped up from seemingly nowhere every time I wanted to pour myself a glass of grapefruit juice. He grabbed the jar out of my hand and poured the liquid into my glass himself. WTF? Am I drinking too much of the precious juice? Does he think I will spill it on the carpet? It is not even his house! Then we were all ushered out to the balcony, about 20-25 of us. The funny little guy was outside on the other side of the parking lot downstairs, camera in hand barking us instructions: move to the right, to the left, squat down, look left, stop talking, stop breathing… And 5 minutes later we were allowed to talk and breathe. And days later I received a picture of the highest quality, everybody’s face showing, smiling, making everybody looking better than in real life. Years later I asked Russell, what was the deal with the grapefruit juice. He just smiled mysteriously shaking his head never revealing a thing.
Friday night dinners:
Then it all started. We met for dinner every Friday night for ten years. Russell and his friends, who in turn became my friends as well. The weekend was unimaginable without this. Our American born friend, the soul of our party gathered us together; a loud, sometimes obnoxious group of people from all around the world to have ethnic food. In the beginning we ate at different restaurants of which he had tested during the previous week. Later we ate more often at our house. He was the decider, sometimes stubbornly overruling our requests for the type of food we wanted. He was the one who picked up the food sometimes spending hours in line waiting for it but never complaining. He delivered the food. And if he was late, we were pissed and we complained, knowing perfectly well that he was doing his best. Did we ever thank him enough?
Russell enters a room full of people. He goes to everybody and shakes hands, man or woman – he was not the hugging type, but he never missed a hand. There is one exception: he greets the dogs first. Sits down on the floor and plays with them for a minute or two. Gets down to their levels literally and figuratively. He loved dogs and people as much as he loved life itself. But he also shook hands with the people who served us at the restaurants, the waiters, the owners, the busboys. He sought out the cooks. He thanked them for what they did. He just felt that it should be done, to show appreciation and respect. The night before he died we were out having dinner at Baladi’s. We all enjoyed ourselves and after paying we set out to leave. Not Russell, he walked up to the owner, shook his hand and chatted with him for a while. He praised the food and the dessert. In other words, he was Russell.
Our inside joke about Russell. Yes Russell you were culturally insensitive. For people who knew him it was really funny, because he was anything but insensitive. He cared and felt for people. He studied and read about different cultures, religions and political views in order to understand them. But he asked questions that nobody dared to ask. Yet he listened to the answer! How many times did we hear him saying: “I am listening.” Through him we got to know each other much better. During dinner out of the blue he asked, so how was your typical day when you were 16 in Leningrad, (St. Petersburg), Russia? How was your childhood in Finland? What did you do as a child in Colombia? And indeed, isn’t it important to get to know a person well? And isn’t it important to know how one grew up what one’s dreams and circumstances were early in life?
And for us he sometimes was annoying because he was able to like people who had totally the opposite view of life, of politics, of religion than ours. He wanted to listen to them. He saw the good in them. I am not sure how he did it but he did. He could never be angry with anybody or with anything or at least it seemed. We waited at a restaurant for 90 (ninety) minutes for our order to learn that they did not have what we ordered. Russell did not raise an eyebrow. He was just as patient and kind as ever. It annoyed me, in fact it pissed me off. I guess I should have learnt from him. He knew how to be happy and how to make others happy. No, he was not insensitive culturally or otherwise.
The computer broke. Call Russell.
Need a ride at the wee hours of the morning or a pick-up at the airport at midnight? Call Russell.
Need to go shopping and need a ride because you don’t have a car or because you just don’t feel like driving? Call Russell.
Need advice about car repair? Call Russell.
Are you moving to a nearby town and need somebody to drive a U-Haul? Call Russell.
And yes, Russell would come, fix your computer, drive you to the end of the world or pick you up from hell, fix your car or move all your stuff. And never, but never asked or expected anything in return. He was the true embodiment of altruism. And we took advantage of him. I think most of us did, I know I did. Did I thank him enough? I doubt it. But even if I did, he would have just smiled and shrugged. Because I am convinced that his life was to help others. He did it because that is what he loved. And that is why we loved him so much. I am a grown-up man and I have tears in my eyes as I type this. He was what we call a MENSCH!
And we, the ungrateful friends, were mad at him when he did not answer the phone. Which happened often. But maybe, just maybe, he did not answer because he was busy helping somebody else. Or was talking to somebody and felt it would be rude to interrupt his conversation by answering the phone. He was for years planning to write a book titled the Rules of Conversation. If he had written it maybe we would know the answer.
We were annoyed ( but at the same time giggled) when he made us all cram into a 2x2 space pretending it was some kind of a transportation device he was inventing in order to save energy and make the world better.
One of us got really mad at him when he did not show up in time to take her to her naturalization interview. He forgot because he ran into two previously unknown Guatemalans who needed help. Could we really be mad at him? Or was it just fun for us to complain about him when deep down we knew how lucky we were to have met him, to call him our friend.
How can we go on without him, was one of the first thoughts we all had. Some of us just thought that, some of us voiced it loud. Was it really selfish? Perhaps, but it is true. None of us knows how we can go on, or rather all of us know that the world will never be the same without him. Our lives will never be the same. We took him for granted.
Russell lived in the present, his laugh was heartfelt and contagious. He sometimes was so amused that he clapped like a child. That is why he was so endearing. He had the naiveté, the innocence of a child. Yet he probably was smarter and a deeper thinker than most of us.
Russell lived in the present. He never considered himself or his own future. He was stubborn, he ignored his own health. And he managed to make us mad even in his death. We all ask why he could not take care of himself? And we all know the answer, because everybody else was more important. We all feel guilty, why could not we take care of him???
We will go on, we will have our Friday dinners. I hope that we learnt a tiny bit from him, how to pay attention to each other, how to listen, how to help others, how to be better human beings. I know I can never be like him. Not sure anybody can. But maybe a touch better. I know he left the world a better place.