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Sage advice during a roadside chat: 'Retire now. While you are alive.'

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

I knew I would not see him during my bicycle ride on Old Bethel Road in Edinburg.  Word had spread of his dying at the University of Virginia Medical Center.  So I went for my morning workout knowing for certain that I would not see or hear his tan diesel truck as he went out for the morning papers.

I always suspected that on those morning journeys he did more than get newspapers, for he was gone too long for just that task. Sometimes he had groceries, and sometimes he mentioned having seen someone he knew and that they had chatted. I was not his only contact, but if we saw each other, we both stopped and talked. We were two old men who covered a myriad of topics -- politics, religion, growing old, cancer, retirement, and sometimes love- all on the shoulder of our little road.

I met Ron and his wife while taking a stroll in the evening cool from a hot August day in 2001. I met them as they enjoyed the same respite from the day's heat. Introductions made, they invited me to visit them at their "river house" down the lane. Lucky for me, I did visit them, and visited with him on the road as we encountered each other in time to come.

Like many valley residents, he retired here because he was struck by the beauty of this land. Settling first in Fort Valley, he and his wife later moved to the end of Old Bethel Road in a house overlooking the North Fork. They built a life in that house and in this area, leaving both only to travel to favorite cities or areas and to visit a now-grown child in upstate New York. On their end of Old Bethel Road they lived much as we all do: they maintained a house, mowed grass, planted a vegetable garden, grew lovely flowers all over the yard, tutored children, enjoyed area restaurants, shopped in D.C for the best and freshest fish, and kept up with neighbors.

I cherished our road talks. Before I retired, I would encounter Ron only during a weekend morning. In those talks, he would look at me from his parked truck and say, "Retire now. While you're alive. What you waiting for?"

After I retired, I saw him more often and we discussed many things, including politics, especially during the past presidential race. Although we agreed in general about politics, I still enjoyed and benefited from his insights. He once told me that the health care system was not broken, just in need of fine tuning. You see, in his keen mind, the words that we used were twisted, and he wanted that description, or any description, to be precise. So, he bothered to parse the difference.

For Ron, like Orwell, words mattered because they dictated how we think. However, Ron's greatest wisdom was about life and how we live it each day. Once, after yet another treatment for cancer, he told me how his doctor had said, "I can keep you alive as long as you can stand the treatment." Ron looked at me with a gleam and said, "So, I got today. I better get on home."

Another response he would utter when I asked about his health was, "What ye' gonna' do? We got no guarantees, so enjoy what you got." He understood that life may not get better, but that it could always get worse. Yet he did enjoy it all, even the treatments to a degree. Often, after a bout of treatment, he and his wife would enjoy a meal at The Boar's Head in Charlottesville. Even in that time, he bothered to appreciate the good things that life offered. The last book that I loaned him was "Nature Noir," an examination of the darker side of our modern lives and nature as seen by a park ranger in California. Ron, like Jordon Smith, the ranger/author, knew the darker sides of life, but he refused to allow them power over himself. He possessed an inner core of wise acceptance that gave him courage. Ron lived Hemingway's definition of courage: "Grace under pressure." Ron was the grace and cancer the pressure.

Once we were discussing a heater for my shop and he told me how he rose earlier than than his wife in order to "sit in the quiet of early morning and watch the light come." He had purchased a small heater for the cold winter mornings because if he turned on the house furnace next to their bedroom, its noise would wake her. So he used this small heater to warm his space and "watch the day come without waking the Mrs." That is my favorite image of Ron: sitting in a morning dark room warmed by a small heater that would not wake his wife, watching the day come over the North Fork, and thinking of things such as the type of tomatoes to plant, a coming trip, their children, and his mortality.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs, and five cats. You may contact him at: redhill@shentel.net


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