T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the “cruellest month.” Not for me. I find it’s barren February, with its unkind cold, and in which month I have known too many men of character who have died recently, and long past.
At 6’7” with a perpetual mustache, bright blue eyes, and a voice like a thunderclap, Boyd Salsbury cut an imposing profile.
His demeanor was gruff, his words carefully selected. It was a ruse for an interior kindness, and a gentleness of spirit. He was a welcomer of people, a free giver of time and effort and possessions. He was a farmer of simple pleasures. Boyd was one of our dearest friends. Matt and he were quite close. And for a brief while, Boyd employed my son Noah, who is on the autism spectrum.
Noah took a seasonal position at Boyd’s Christmas tree farm just over a year ago. He had approached us about the job, unprompted. It was weekend-only work that a few of his school friends were also doing. Noah, our Aspie, was asking us about working with strangers. About spending time in crowds. About doing something he must have known, internally, would make him uncomfortable. After some deliberation, we agreed. We told Noah he would need to interview, as he would for any job. We told him to be polite and look Mr. Salsbury in the eye. We reminded him that this interview would be the first of a series in his future, and would be good practice. We told him it was important to present himself in the best way.
For the interview, Noah wore jeans, a flannel shirt, and a tie. Alex P. Keaton meets Bear Grylls. Noah smoothed his pelt-thick hair flat with a water-soaked brush. I hugged him on the way out the door, and told him he would be great. I felt him trembling under his coat.
Matt and Boyd had talked ahead of time. Boyd asked him where Matt thought Noah would be best suited on the farm.
“I want to see what his threshold is,” Matt responded. “If you need someone up front, we might want to try him there.” Boyd agreed. The two friends were now complicit in the plan to push Noah toward functioning more completely on his own.
Noah and Matt discussed the interview on the way to the farm.
“What should I ask him?” Noah asked.
“Well, how about finding out what he expects of you?” Matt replied.
“Ok. And also, how about like, how long the farm is open? And how much I’ll get? And who else will be working there? How about how much the trees cost and how to get them home?”
Matt laughed. “Yes,” he said. “Those are all good questions.”
When Boyd and Noah sat down together, Boyd was stunned. He couldn’t believe Noah had worn a tie to the interview, and had come thoroughly prepared with questions. Sure enough, and I’m sure to Noah’s great anguish, he was given the job of greeter.
Our child with Asperger’s was going to be greeting people. Getting email addresses, directing customers to particular trees. Meeting and making small talk with strangers. All. Day. Long.
Naturally, my son was terrified thrilled.
Perhaps because of Boyd’s stature or his reticence, perhaps because of where he’d assigned Noah to work (which was really Matt’s suggestion, so he might have wanted to re-direct his irritation), Noah had gotten it in his head that Boyd disliked him. Until the day he was given a dollar tip by one of the customers.
My sweet Noah, always seeking to do the right thing, took the dollar to Boyd.
“This is for you, sir,” he said. “One of the customers gave it to me.”
Boyd cracked a smile.
“No, son,” he said. “You earned that. It belongs to you.”
Noah burst through the door that afternoon, full of a story to share. Boyd had become “the kindest man I ever met.”
Boyd, our kindest man, was diagnosed with stage four intestinal cancer in February last year—within two months of Noah’s time at the farm. In a year, and despite the valiant efforts of his doctors, he was dead.
His widow, a friend of mine who is as strong as she is tender, asked if Noah would be an honorary pallbearer, and accompany the casket down a short stretch of rural highway to the farm for his funeral, perfectly fitting for a second-generation farmer. Noah had never experienced death up close. I didn’t know how he would react, but as he always does, my son surprised me, and rose to the occasion.
He dressed in his new outfit the morning of the funeral, smoothing his tie, and tucking in his shirt. He met the tractor and flatbed where the other pallbearers had gathered, and he walked with purpose down our country road. Like he had a plan. Because as it turns out, he did.
The program was already underway, with the eulogy delivered when Boyd’s son asked if anyone wanted to share a thought or memory about his father. Noah looked at me the way he does when he’s communicating desperate desire. He was mouthing something. I thought it was, “When is this over?” I was wrong. After a whole cross-aisle pantomime routine, I finally worked out that it was, “Can I go?” As in, “can I get up and speak?”
Matt had told Noah before the ceremony that it wouldn’t be possible. That there would be other people who had known Boyd longer, and would want to share years of memories and deeper relationships. Also, Noah fancies himself an orator and has never turned down an opportunity to dominate a microphone. Matt was afraid he would meander. The fear is founded. You know, genetics. But I felt the Lord prompting me. Once I recognized what Noah was mouthing across the aisle, I nodded. Up he sprang to the podium like he’d been loosed from a trap.
“I didn’t know Mr. Boyd very long,” he began.
Matt wheeled around to look at me. I leaned forward.
“Just let him speak,” I whispered. “He loved Boyd, too.”
Noah continued, “But I worked for him at his tree farm. And He was the kindest person I have ever met. He was so generous, and would give you anything, and he was larger than life.”
His widow turned to face me, teary-eyed and smiling.
Noah once again, had risen to the occasion.
Now, Matt still had to give him the “wrap it up” hand signal. But Noah’s feelings were no less true because of a little rambling. Friends of ours were weeping and laughing at the same time. And when Noah sat down, they applauded.
So of course Jesse wanted to speak.
Jesse, also on the autism spectrum, and normally the more verbal of my boys, with a hint of a lisp and dimples like curves stepped to the podium with a face streaming with tears. Boyd’s son Brandon knelt down next to him so that Jesse could reach the mic, and laid a hand fondly on Jesse’s back.
Jesse spoke very little, except to choke through his tears, “I loved Mr. Boyd very much, and he was very kind, and very nice, and he was very, very tall.”
Which made all of us, and Boyd I’m sure from his vantage in Glory, laugh out loud.