When I was in fifth grade back in Merchantville, N. J., I went to my first funeral. Mr. MacAfoss, an old man who lived across the street from me, had died. My parents said that they thought that I was old enough to attend the service. Actually, I think that they just couldn't find someone to watch me. I sat through the service listening to the minister go on about my neighbor and how much he would be missed by his family and friends.
The experience at Mr. MacAfoss' funeral had a strong impact upon me. So, I went over to Mr. Lee's house as soon as I returned home. Mr. Lee was from China and a best friend a kid could ever have growing up. I got to his doorstep just as he arrived home from the funeral. I recounted my reflections about having attended my first funeral. I told him about seeing our neighbor in a casket and how funny he looked lying there. Mr. Lee asked me about what I thought of the service.
I reflected about how the minister shared memories that Mr. MacAfoss' family and friends had of him. Mr. Lee asked me what I remembered about Mr. MacAfoss. I remembered that he was a retired machinist who worked in the basement shop where he repaired things for his neighbors and himself. I also remembered how he worked over his oily workbench. I would often come to see him and would wave to him through the basement window as he worked. He would always gesture for me to come downstairs to talk. I liked him almost as much as Mr. Lee. We would talk about his latest project and how he would make the replacement part. He amazed me with his talent to take a piece of metal and transform it into a part for some broken motor or tool.
Another thing that impressed me was Mr. MacAfoss' ability to stay on task. Having a little attention deficit disorder myself, I would hop from one thing to another, but he would work for hours at his shop without ever getting up-save for the times that I would interrupt him. He was also very conscious about details. Perfection was necessary even on things that didn't require such exacting specifications. I told Mr. Lee that Mr. MacAfoss was like him. He would always take time to talk with me and was always happy to see me. When we would talk, he would try to convince me that attention to detail was important. I told Mr. Lee that I felt that he wanted to teach me about work like Mr. Lee taught me about life.
After listening to all my remembrances, Mr. Lee laconically asked, "Did you ever tell him these things when he was alive?"
I shook my head that I hadn't and then started to talk about some other detail regarding the funeral. Mr. Lee's cryptic inquiry went right over my head. As with most of Mr. Lee's lessons of life, he had to spell them out for me. Today was no exception. Mr. Lee redirected me from my next point back to his last question. He paraphrased my admiration for Mr. MacAfoss and added after each point, "You really appreciated it, didn't you?" To each point, I affirmed that I did.
I couldn't understand why we were going through this point by point restatement of my feelings about Mr. MacAfoss. Finally, Mr. Lee summed up his line of questioning like a Chinese version of the great defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, with the question that I ignored the first time, "Did you ever tell him these things when he was alive?"
Again, I shook my head and said that I hadn't. To which Mr. Lee responded, "Allen, have you ever thought that your friend might not know how much you thought of him?" Mr. Lee's question resonated loudly inside my small head, and I understood. I felt shame and grief at the possibility that Mr. MacAfoss didn't know how much I really liked him. I sat silently in front of Mr. Lee thinking about all that he had said and more tragically all that I hadn't said. It hurt me to think that I would never have the opportunity to make right my error. It wasn't long before I realized that this lesson of life wasn't limited to Mr. MacAfoss; it applied to all of my relationships. As that realization dawned upon me, I got up and hugged Mr. Lee. Looking up into his all-knowing eyes, I said, "I like you, Mr. Lee. I really do. You have always been my best friend.