A few weeks back, I got word that a close family friend had died. In truth, Keith Collins was more than a friend; he was family. I was, and still am, proud to call him "Uncle Keith". I was blessed to spend a summer with him and my Aunt Kathi in Mississippi between my junior and senior years in high school. At that time, Keith ran a roofing business and he put myself and my cousin, Matt, to work. Let me tell you: putting a tin roof on a house in Mississippi in the summer is no picnic. It gave me a healthy respect for the job Keith and others like him do. But he wasn't all about working. He was quick to make a joke, loved to have a good time with friends and family. He loved gardening and was fiercely protective of his bird feeders. He used to keep a pellet gun by the back door to pick off squirrels that were foolish enough to try pilfering from them.
About 16 years ago, Keith suffered a massive stroke and heart attack. They left him mostly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. While he was physically incapacitated, the times that we were able to get together left me no doubt that he had retained his sharp wit and good humor.
I am grateful that Olivia had the chance to meet him. She was only 3, but she was instantly fascinated by Keith.
When I heard that there was going to be a gathering in Mississippi to honor Keith and his memory, I, of course, wanted to go, but with Rebecca's work schedule, it was (I thought) impossible in the time frame necessary. Well, as usual, I underestimated my wife. In a matter of days, she managed to arrange for other folks to watch the kids so I could go. While I knew I was only going to have about 12 hours, I also knew it would be worth it to be able to be there with Kathi and the rest of the family. I dropped the boys off at her parents' house in Waxhaw on Friday and left from there at 3am Saturday morning. I drove straight through to Brandon, MS and got there right at noon, which was earlier than I expected. I realized as I pulled in that it had been 23 years since I'd been there. It brought back so many good memories. I remembered Keith putting me to work on the very first full day I was there digging a stump out of the back yard. I remembered Matt and I trying to burn a nest of fire ants out of the front yard with a can of gas and nearly setting the entire lawn on fire. I was suddenly very glad I had come.
The real gathering didn't start until 6 or 7 that evening, so there were a few hours for the family to catch up on things. My Aunt Mary Jane and Uncle Joe from MD had made the drive down. My sister came down from Nashville and Kathi's children, John and Amy, were there, too. We spent the afternoon watching college football and sharing memories of Keith.
Later that evening, friends started arriving. There were quite a lot of people there, which was a wonderful testimony to the lives Keith had touched in his too-short time here.
Everyone had a wonderful time and I know that Aunt Kathi was greatly blessed by all the people who showed up. I am very grateful to my fabulous wife for her hard work in arranging things so I could be there on such short notice.