In 2004, I was thirty-three years old and just lost my father to suicide. That next year, I went through a period where I was trying to find myself and, in doing so, made a pilgrimage to visit my grandparents and other family who moved to Florida in recent years. I reconnected with my mom’s mom and stepfather (whom I know as “Grandmom and Grandpop Peterson”), my uncle Dave Smith and his family there in Panama City, in the Florida panhandle. As my Uncle Dave put it, “This is L.A. Lower Alabama.” This trip was exactly what I needed and I was able to recharge my batteries and become centered again. I learned a lot about myself during that time. Not only did I refresh my interest in being a better man, but I also came home wanting to become a Freemason like Grandpop and Uncle Dave. During the trip, I learned that Dave was Master of his Lodge and Grandpop said becoming a Mason was the best thing he ever did. That pretty much sealed it for me. I’m going to be a Mason.
I came back to Los Angeles and looked up my local lodge, Ionic Composite Lodge #520. After attending and applying for membership, the investigation process began. For those not familiar with Masonry, this is when three members of the Lodge separately interview a prospect to ascertain whether the applicant is worthy of membership. One day in 2005 I received a call from a guy named Jeff. He was an insurance salesman in his sixties and Past Master of the Lodge that I was joining. We set a time for the interview and we met at his Los Angeles home and sat at his kitchen table. We went through the obligatory questions and kept on chit-chatting for another hour or two. It was as if we had known each other all our lives. During this conversation, it was determined that we were going to get together with our wives to double date. Also, I became a Mason on Jeff’s recommendation.
Within a week or so, Jeff and I made plans to take the ladies out to dinner. Turns out, Jeff’s wife and my wife had even more in common and could not stop chit-chatting. Forget that Jeff and his wife were old enough to be our parents. When we were together, we all felt like we were in our twenties again. We went on cruises, trekked to Vegas, watched movies, had brunch, no matter what it was, we had a blast and Jeff and I acted like teenage boys while the ladies kept an eye on us and did their thing. This went on for more than a decade. For a guy who lost his father just a year prior, this was a divine gift. Jeff was not only a strong male figure, but he was a smooth talker and taught me a lot about dealing with people. No matter where we went, Jeff would prioritize making people smile over anything else. This became my life’s goal as well. Jeff knew exactly what it took to bond with an individual in a way that would cause them to want to do you a favor. This is where his master sales technique came in. I was the avid student and absorbed all I could. Jeff was the sharpest person I met and one of the coolest characters I’ve ever known.
A couple of years ago, Jeff’s wife told us that he was exhibiting signs of illness. At first, when we hung out with the wives, I saw very little difference. Initially, he would repeat himself a bit more than usual. After a few lunches together, I realized that he needed some “coaching” in order to get along in a public setting. For example, we went to lunch at his favorite spot. We ordered our meals and he was basically his normal self. He needed a little help dealing with his half of the check but, overall, was the same old guy I knew. Afterward, we walked down the street to a coffee shop. Jeff was his normal self, wanting to make friends with everyone who would be willing. I noticed he was repeating things we just spoke about and helped coach him back to the conversation at hand. Once we did that, it was like business as usual. We were like the regular Jeff and Rob talking up a storm. We even had a great conversation with a gentleman who sold wardrobes to be used in shooting TV and movies. We continued to have numerous double dates and had lunches together and things went fine without a hitch. I knew Jeff was losing some of his faculties, but not to the extent that his wife was seeing from a day to day basis. I knew she had been scheduled for a routine surgery and, of course, I had offered to hang with Jeff while she was away. On the day of her hip surgery, she called and said she decided to take me up on it. Of course, I grabbed a pair of pajamas and bee-lined over to Jeff’s house for a sleepover! His wife was gone and I was just bringing him some familiarity and consistency. But this was the day I realized that the Jeff I knew and looked up to was no longer available. We still had a great evening, watching his favorite show, “Walker Texas Ranger” and chit-chatting about life, but he was no longer the man I knew.
Fast forward to today. Jeff has passed last weekend. I was chosen by his wife to be a pallbearer and I was honored beyond belief. A bunch of our Masonic buddies showed up and we had a nice time catching up and telling tales about Jeff. The funeral was wonderful and his nephews gave epic eulogies that Jeff could only dream of. The entire time, though, all I could think about was how Jeff would be trying to break the seriousness of the moment by trying to make us laugh. It’s not what he “would have wanted”. It’s what he wanted. I know it. So, anyway, I’m his best buddy at his funeral and guess what I’m doing? I’m connecting with his grand-nephew who is ten years old. I lost my mother at eleven and a grandfather at fourteen. So I know what life is like as a child to be at a funeral for a relative. Anyway, here I am hanging out with this kid. Ironically, he is obsessed with Dodgers baseball like Jeff. So, I just started talking with him about the Dodgers, but also his love for sweets. I grabbed my suit jacket and covered him from the crowd so he could grab all the sweets he wanted while his parents weren’t looking. He sliced off an extra piece of chocolate cake his parents were probably not excited about. I, the dutiful Uncle-for-the-day, covered for him and told them I was to blame. The kid definitely had his fill of sugar and was wired to go. In addition, I sat at the table with two of Jeff’s high school buddies who both had fun stories to tell us.
I know there is no such thing as having a good time at a funeral, but this was as good as it could get. Genuine human connection and keeping Jeff’s legacy alive. Farewell, my friend.