By Matt Gordon
Ask everyone on earth who the best three people they’ve ever known are and my name won’t come up. To make such a list is a pretty great feat, if you think about it. We meet a lot of people in life. To be on the podium for any other human is a rare, beautiful accomplishment.
Easily a hundred lists would boast some variation of the name Charles Thurman. Maybe it is “Pops” or “Charlie.” It would be on my list too under Mr. Charlie.
We grew up in the country and had few neighbors. One of these neighbors threatened to shoot our dog with regularity and may have poisoned him. We’d go the long way around this man’s house to arrive at the home of a neighbor of a different sort, for there lived Mr. Charlie.
Despite being old—as all people above 18 are to the young—he had a basketball hoop. It was a curiosity I had no time to ponder, for I was busy shooting my basketball; Mr. Charlie there with me. Old he may be, but he’d match me shot for shot, dribble for dribble. Rather than trash talk, he spoke a different, unfamiliar language: encouragement. He wasn’t bilingual—this was the sole language of his life.
After playing ball, he’d invite me into his home, where his wife, Ms. June, had a plate of cookies warm and waiting. If this idyllic scene seems too good to be true, you’d be right. Perhaps that is why an eerie, inviting goodness overwhelmed even the aroma of homemade cookies. It was unnatural, the love.
We are supposed to love those who can help us or those to whom we are beholden. We are not supposed to love those who cannot offer us a thing. There is no advantage to it. But there is an endearing, soul-shifting grace to it.
That is what Mr. Charlie provided thousands.
I wasn’t much interested in Jesus; he had no jump shot or shoe deals. Like every nineties kid, I wanted to be like Mike. But Mr. Charlie baptized me—before dunking me in water, he showered me in something better than theology. It was unadulterated care and acceptance. It was tenderness. It was truth. It was an Arkansas lilt and constant smile, a knowing twinkle in the eye.
When I was in high school, he came to my basketball games. He’d praise the things no one else noticed—the way I didn’t rub a win in an opponent’s face or throw a fit in a loss. Knowing he saw made me want my character to rise to the occasion, even when my game could not. I wanted my life to meet his gaze.
I moved away in college, but he didn’t. He’d find my mother in church and ask about my life. He’d tear up as she told him about me, caring well beyond boundaries we humans tend to stop short of.
When his wife got sick, he cared for her. She may not remember even her own hands, but she would scarcely look down without seeing them being held. Her sweet, vacant eyes would follow those hands up arms, to shoulder, to head, to face, where a constant smile and twinkle awaited her in tender, undaunted eyes.
When his dear wife passed, I called Mr. Charlie. He said he missed her terribly, but had much to do. He was leading the adult senior Sunday school class at his church and needed to finish his race well. Then he’d be with Ms. June again. He held her hand still, but refused to allow grief to release his grip on all the other hands he held.
Daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—they all know this larger than life man. Size achieved not by being the richest and grandest and loudest, but by making much of others and nothing of himself.
He has touched so many just by caring. By listening. By moving in. By smiling. By showing up. By never letting go. He has held so many friends and family like no other.
Neighbors too. Rapscallions wandering in search of some meaning in their world. Avoiding threats and seeking some unknown, hoped-for comfort. They’d stumble to a house in the woods, ring the bell, and ask, “Can Mr. Charlie come out and play?”
The answer for all? A constant smile and knowing twinkle. A life becoming behemoth by making itself small.