For some reason, I always excelled at parallel parking. Why, I am not sure. I grew up on a farm where we pulled our cars across the barnyard to get in or out of the driveway. I lived in a small town where the number of spots around the town square probably equaled the number of cars needing to be there. But when I got to college I had no problem finagling my car into the tightest spaces. Once, in the mid-eighties, I maneuvered my car into the smallest of spots in front of an “establishment” I was headed into for the evening. As I was walking away, a patron of that establishment, who had already enjoyed several hours there, apparently, bet me that I couldn’t get my car out of that spot and back into it. No problem — within a few minutes I was out of the parking space, back into it and headed inside with his 20 dollar bill parked in my back pocket.
The mid-eighties was a long time and a lot of bad hair-do’s ago. But I am still living in this college town where this story took place. I have parallel parked around here many, many times everything from a new, real-life-first-job Nissan, a young-mother-of-3 mini-van, the proverbial-pack-mule-sports-mom Yukon XL and the “freedom-feels-so-good” Mustang convertible but there is not one vehicle that has brought me as much joy as this red truck… a 1996 Chevy Silverado that I bought on a whim last August.
I wrote about it at that time. About how I had to break the news to my mother. I told her that I had fallen in love with a 22 year old (I am 56) but that the age difference wasn’t what was shocking — it was because it was a Chevy and I was raised in a Ford family. I wrote about the joy of being able to haul stuff in the midst of a life overhaul but it was not as much ground-breaking for me as it was grounding. Yes, for those around me it was a little odd, but I am used to that because I have always felt at odds — like I was perpendicular in a parallel world. Yet, for me to suddenly be driving this big red truck felt right, like it was a turn signal toward an unpaved path that just keeps unfolding in the headlights.
I also wrote about how we all need a “vehicle of transformation” to get us through to the next stage of our lives… something to lift us up, just enough and carry us forward, just a little, to make it another day. I wrote about how this vehicle had done just that for its previous owner, as he had purchased it, brand new, just before being let go from his career as a college football coach. The job he was taking on about the same time I was taking bets on my parallel parking. At that time there was no way to know how our lives would intersect and what he would come to mean to me. At this time, though, that’s what I have to write about. Because I have to lift up those closest to him, if I can, so that they can carry forward, for one day, all too soon, they will have to make through a day without him.
Bill Mallory, and his wife Ellie, hired me in the fall of 2011 to redecorate their house. No… let me rephrase that… Ellie asked me to help her pick out some paint colors and before long, we were painting everything, including the closets. Ellie’s ability to turn a small task into a project is just an outward manifestation of how her small gestures of kindness kindle lifelong connection and and as I pulled things out of their closets, I felt pulled into their lives. As I hung family mementos and sports memorabilia on the walls, I felt the energy and integrity that had flowed from each generation and followed them from town to town as Bill followed his ambition. Each picture or award or trophy I touched carried pride and achievement and accolades. But, at that time they carried more than that for me, they carried faith.
Faith, because I had to earn Bill’s trust before he let me in his office. He watched as I worked around his house on the family pictures and furniture arrangements and when his office was the only room left untouched, he let me in after sharing his game plan with me. I could rearrange the memorabilia but it all had to stay. The chair had to stay. The exercise bike had to stay. He would like a small table to put the video player where he could watched game tape. And, most importantly, he would like to hang more of what was most important to him… his growing collection of photos and art work and notes from his grandchildren. OK, coach. Nothing can leave and I need to make room for more. Got it. I looked around his office and there were hundreds of photos and plaques and awards from every school but then it was my turn… he had to hand it off to me. By that time I had been working in his midst for several months and he was the only thing standing between me and the goal line, which was simply finishing the job. So he was going to have to trust Ellie’s recruiting skills.
I set to work removing all of the items and organizing them so that when I put them back up they told his story. As you moved around the room you could mark the milestones of his career with the largest wall dedicated to his years at IU. I didn’t bother measuring as I went… I lay up a collage like this like a stone mason lays a stone wall and it comes together intuitively — having faith in my skills and eye. I can’t tell you the details from those photos… there were bowl wins and championships and conference honors that have been well documented in newspapers and ESPN reports and school trophy cases. What I saw, in those photographs, were the faces of sons that had been entrusted to this coach. I felt the hope of the mothers and fathers and communities that had trusted their young men to this man. And when I hung the family photos that I had made room for on the most visible wall in his office, I knew that the placement of them behind his back was more than symbolic, it was what made him, him. And when I glanced back around the room at the drawings from his grandchildren among the hundreds and hundreds of players in those photos, I understood that the thing that united all of them, and me, was faith… both in him and from him.
In 2017, he and Ellie decided that it was time to downsize and this time, apparently, this time it was him doing the recruiting, because he told her she had to call me. But in the interim, I had stopped decorating. My life had taken some twists and turns but as luck would have it, I had a pocket of time that I could help them move in. I was only doing it because I had come to care for them so much… and because Ellie has that way of asking me to come hang pictures that turned into several months of helping them fit their big lives into this smaller space. Even though I had been out of the business for awhile I had faith I could do for them — but, even then, I had no idea what Bill’s faith in me would do for me.
Because in the years between my first job with them and this last, I had taken myself out of the game. Not just professionally, but the forces of what had been relentlessly coming at me had knocked me down so many times that I didn’t want to get back up. Except for my children, I had closed myself off from relationships and connections and numbed myself to joy because it was always beaten by the pain. I was playing small, just hoping to not lose anything more.
This feeling began to subside as I connected their VCR and TV and reconnected with them. I reworked the custom drapes that I had hung in their old house and remembered what it was like to work. I was hooked, again, by the stories of their family and friends and then hooked up Ellie’s computer so that she could listen to music while we worked. Side by side, almost daily, I helped them empty the boxes that contained their old lives and made it new for them as they renewed my sense of myself. I felt seen and appreciated and loved. And as I was fitting most of what had been in Bill’s old office into his new office, I overheard him say that what didn’t fit was his old truck into his new garage. Before I knew it, I had bought it. And as he handed me the keys, I had Ellie snap a picture. It’s the only picture I have of Bill and me and it was taken after a long day of working there… I am without makeup and my hair is pulled back but I love this picture — one, because it has Ellie’s finger in it at the top as a wonderful reminder of her as the witness of this event — but mostly because of the joy I was feeling because of that moment.
You see, I lost my dad nearly 30 years ago and we had never shared a moment like this. I had wonderful men like my grandfather and step-father to fill that role but there was this void left in me that had really only carried pain. And after these years of Bill’s influence, I realized that in the moment that I was most at odds with faith and love and hope, he had pulled up parallel to me to guide me through. He wasn’t my coach but he had coaxed me back into gear. In showing me the quirks of the tailgate and how to use the key fob and then reaching in to make sure I was buckled in he had quietly pulled up next to me and aligned this huge loving force with my huge fear of loving. Like an offense and defense within the game of life I realized that the give and take of both had to be out there to make it work.
Joy and pain are not replacements for each other, they perform at their best because of each other, like the opponents in a championship football game. This hit home to me yesterday as, because Bill and Ellie pulled me back into my career and working and relationships and life, I am so happy. Because they loved me, I am willing to love again, work again, feel everything again. Even the deepest pain, because today we are losing Bill due to a tragic fall that he will not recover from. But this pain feels right and good because it is simply the price for loving someone. I had walled myself off from ups and downs and as I filled their walls of their home, I found mine again.
Several months ago I parallel parked Bill, the truck and I was so pleased with the accomplishment that I took a picture of it, posting it on Instagram. “He” is my constant companion as I trek to salvage yards and pick up furniture and deliver artwork and haul construction debris for disposal. More importantly, he, Bill Mallory, will forever be parked in my heart — a reminder that for every win there is a loss and for every joy there will be pain. He helped me move and he helped me move forward. Because the truck was only the vehicle… what was transformative was his love. He will be sorely missed. Nothing has to leave as we make room for this grief because love doesn’t take room, it makes room for more.