HeartNote, September 5, 2019: John's Smile

When I was in Chicago last week, I stopped into a bar that my older brother’s had frequented. The place has been there for over seventy years. My friend John and his older brother bought the place three years ago. I found out about it on Facebook, and this had been the first time I’ve had a chance to see the place.

John was the happiest guy in class. Constantly smiling. Nothing seemed to bother this guy. Always came up smiling, no matter the issue or the conflict. I wanted to make a point not only to see the place that my siblings frequented, but to see if John still had the same energy, and in particular that same constant smile, that he did when we were young.

As soon as I came through the door, I saw that smile. Unmistakably John. I could have seen it across the street. Just as bright, just as wide. I stood at the door, and said, “Umm, Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but…” Then the smile turned into a bellow. “Oh, my gosh, what’s it been, 40, 45 years?” John hugged me and almost put me into intensive care.

“McShane, how are you?” He was the same guy. It is so rare that we go through this life with the an attitude so easy in childhood and hold that tone of grace throughout our lives.

We sat for over two hours. I finally got around to telling him, “John, you have the same light in your eyes as you did when we were younger. And that same, constant, immoveable smile on your face. How have you held on to that spirit for so long?”

John smiled, of course and said, “You know, the summer before first grade, my Dad was killed in an automobile accident. And I remember all I did that summer was stay in my room and cry. My Mom was left with five kids, all alone, and I was the youngest. My brother’s and sisters tried to console me, and I wasn’t having it.”

“Just before first grade, the whole family moved in with my grandparents, my father’s parents, just down the street from the school. And I did the same thing: I didn’t move out of my room. I just sat and read and cried, staring into the sky."

"One night, my grandmother came in and saw me looking out the window, looking at the stars. No moon, but a ton of stars. She sat down next to me and said, “What are you looking for?” I couldn’t answer. A long time passed and she finally said, “Johnny, look up there. Do you see your Father?”

“I remember looking at her and I said, “What? Where?,” straining my neck toward the night sky, pressing my face against the window.

“I’m not sure, honey. But I know he’s there. He will twinkle at me. That’s his smile, Johnny. I taught him that.”

“You did?” I said, “You taught him to twinkle in the sky?”

My grandmother laughed. “No, sweetheart. I taught him that when things are a little dark, to smile as best you can, and you’ll know that everything is going to be just fine. And now, Johnny, your Dad-my son-is among the darkness. But when you see a star twinkle, that’s you Dad smiling at you.”

“And you know what, Johnny? When you smile back, he will be able to see you. That is your twinkle to him. Your Dad will see you smiling, and he’ll twinkle back. Sometimes you’ll see him in one part of the sky, sometimes in another, or sometimes he’ll be busy like when he went to work.”

“But as long as you’re smiling, day or night, he’ll see you. And the next time you look at the night sky, and see a star twinkling, that’s your father smiling back at you.”

“My grandmother left the room. I kept staring at the stars, smiling, hoping one would twinkle. And one did. Then I smiled again. And again, one twinkled. I must have done that all night because, when I woke up the next morning, my head was pressed against the window.”

“So,” John said, “Smiling is my connection with my Dad. I wanted him to see me everyday. I wanted to see me wake up, go to school, learn my lessons, play with my brothers and sisters, and get into bed. I’d look up and smile whenever I could. And I’ve kept it going throughout my life. When things got tough, or there were struggles, I’d smile just as often to let him know I was making it.”

“Every kid wants their Dad to pay attention to him. I still do. And I smile as often as I can.”

“And,” John said, pointing to the sky, “Sometimes, on a clear night, I can see him smiling



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