Not long after her husband died, my friend Lisa sent me what she described as an out-of-the-ordinary request.
“I know this is unusual,” she said in a Facebook message, ” but how do you feel about making a wooden funeral box for Dennis’ ashes?”
She didn’t specify exactly what she wanted, but she reminded me that when they got married, I built them a cedar chest similar to the one I made for my mom a year or so before. I messaged her back telling her I’d be honored to the make the box. It occurred to me pretty much right away that it should complement the wedding gift, which I’m happy to report is still in use.
I’ve known Lisa and Dennis for close to 30 years. She started writing for The Shorthorn, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Arlington, a few years after I had graduated.
Probably like at most student papers, seniors at The Shorthorn would become friends with sophomores. And when those sophomores became seniors, their sophomore friends became sort friends-in-law to the seniors who had moved on a couple of years earlier.
Dennis’ Shorthorn connection predated mine. Before he graduated, the lure of a steady paycheck at real-world newspapers became too much to resist.
Along the way, he married and had a son. He later divorced. At some point he came to the realization that not having his degree was keeping him from jobs in journalism that he clearly had the talent for.
So he came back to The Shorthorn. And he met Lisa. And they fell in love.
Dennis, even then, had a rakish, almost world-weary charm. When he returned to college, he was surrounded by people more than a few years younger than he was. His hair was thinner. The lines in his cheeks and around his eyes were deeper. And the flesh around his belly a little softer.
He made no effort to hide any of it, as best I remember.
Around this time, I was working at the old Arlington Citizen-Journal, then sort of a step-child of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram hoping to be adopted and accepted into a forever home. After she graduated, Lisa landed a job there too, and by then it was officially called the Star-Telegram’s Arlington Bureau.
Dennis would join the Sports Desk of the Dallas Morning News. Being a sports journalist, he once told me, beats out of you whatever sort of sports fan you might have been before.
“You don’t care who wins, you don’t care who loses,” he said. “You just want the game to end so you can get the story in without busting deadline.”
I would find out soon enough that it’s the same covering election night, whether it’s for the local school board or the race for president.
At the Star-Telegram, Lisa worked for me when I was deputy metro editor in Arlington. She brought to her beats a disarming interview style that drew out great information from sources who never complained of being badgered or set up.
And being a young mom back then, she had great time-management skills. Her stories were clean, written with flair and always in on time so she could get home to her two boys.
A year or so before I moved to the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau, Lisa moved to Chicago so her nuclear family could join her extended family.
As often happens with time and distance, old friendships become faded and fuzzy, Updates often come second-hand and months late. Fortunately in the modern world, social media is able to restore some of the immediacy.
A post on Facebook shows the kid who caused some angst in the newsroom what seemed like only a couple of years ago because he was starting first grade was now being packed off to college. And another shows the little boy whose Baptism you still remember — because you still have the sport coat you wore — posing with his date for the junior prom.
Then later, you read that your old friend got banged up pretty good doing some ordinary home repairs. Later still, your hear that doctors say that although it’s serious, there’s a pretty good chance that they found it in time.
Finally you get word that their worst fears have been realized.
How that news is handed down reflects the character of those who share it. For Dennis and Lisa, they melded honesty with humor.
There was fear. But there was a photo posted of one of Dennis’ favorite figurines playfully trapped inside a portable hospital toilet. Another of him in his hospital bed holding tight to a box of Popeye’s with a caption assuring the meal comported with doctor’s orders.
Just after I shipped the box for Dennis’ ashes to Chicago, I asked Lisa for a photo or two of the wedding gift cedar chest. It has held up well. A peek under the lid shows that it remains a functional piece of furniture.
The outside shows some of the dings and scars we collect as we wander through life. The new one, gleaming from four coats of varnish topped by an application of wood polish, will be buried with Dennis’ ashes in Texas.