The church parsonage in Murphy shared a driveway with Duke and his wife, Edna. Before school I would walk down to the bottom of the steep hill, grab both of our newspapers, and deliver Duke’s to him. My motives were not completely altruistic. Duke, at one time, owned a restaurant. After retirement he continued to cook. Every day he would prepare enough breakfast for about 20 people. His friends and former regulars at his restaurant would stop by throughout the morning. They would eat, drink coffee, and hang out for a while. His first visitor of the day was usually the nine-year-old kid from next door bearing his paper.
He and his friends would discuss the news of the day. And in the late ’70s there was a lot of news. Headlines told us of earthquakes and plane crashes and a nut in Jonestown leading a murder-suicide. It seemed like a daily occurrence that hundreds of people were dying in some sort of natural disaster or catastrophe. I was nine and already becoming desensitized to death.
Then one day I learned a lesson from Duke that changed the way my mind processes tragedy. That morning I walked in with the paper and helped myself to a hot, buttery, flaky, spicy, delicious, sausage biscuit. Duke had sausage biscuits figured out. He opened the paper I handed him and read the headline. “Twenty-three people killed in a bus crash.” The stupid, desensitized, invulnerable, breakfast mooching nine-year-old responded, “that’s not that many” and continued to eat his biscuit.
Duke set his paper down. His usually smiling face got oddly serious. He put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Michael, if something bad happened to you, how many people would be sad?” I thought about it. “Well, Mom and Dad. Maybe Steven. My cousins and aunts and uncles. My friends at church and school.” Duke responded, “think about that, Michael. That’s a lot of people. Now multiply that number by 23. That’s how many people are crying and hurting today.”
There are days I wish Duke didn’t have that conversation with me. I want my mind to go back to a state where I think, “well, only 50 people were killed.” Instead, when I hear news about tragedy, I immediately do the math; approximating how many broken hearts were caused by the headline I just read.
Today I find myself wishing that Duke had, instead of sharing a life lesson, taught me how to make sausage biscuits.