From the story, When Murray Met Helen

When Helen shouted “wait!” into the still and sweetly incensed air of the cathedral, it couldn’t help but be disconcerting to her that Father James’s reaction was to flinch and rock backwards onto his heels. He didn’t ask a question but his expression begged for an answer, and she offered one.

“My name is Helen Morris. I’m Murray’s neighbor.”

“Oh,” he replied, recovering his wits. “We will now hear from Helen. A neighbor.”

It was almost painful for Helen to watch the line of crisply-hatted, octogenarian heads in the front row, as age-stiffened torsos and necks tried to turn to find out what was going on behind them. Fortunately, Rick was still holding Helen’s right hand and she glanced down at him as she stood to make her way out of the pew. One of the things that endeared her to Rick was the way he could fashion a poetic little smile at moments like this, to say without saying, “oh, this will be fun.”

But it was hardly fun for her. Helen had never done anything like this before, and now her own body was escorting her to the front of the church to say, well, to say something she hadn’t rehearsed at all. A minute earlier she’d only been staring at the funeral lilies below the platform of the lectern, wondering just where the heck do you get funeral lilies in Milwaukee in November. But hearing the old blowhard, whom Murray despised, describe Murray merely as a great warrior and patriot– well that had set her off, much to Rick’s delight.

The hardest part was when she turned to look back and realized the cathedral was much larger than she’d registered initially, and that more than a hundred pairs of puzzled eyes were staring back at her. It didn’t help that Chili’s wife leaned to his good ear and asked, all too audibly, “who is this?”

But then Helen noticed Renard, and in the gentle landscape of Renard’s face she could tell that the man who knew Murray best was hoping to calm her and encourage her, and it made such a difference. Renard lifted her into the moment. She looked down to focus on a knot in the wood of the lectern, and then looked up, and began to speak.

“I’m only thirty-three,” she began. “So unlike many of you I didn’t get to know Murray as a warrior, or as a patriot. Because I lived next door to him in the last years of his life, I got to know him as a neighbor, a gardener, a devotee of Dave Brubeck, and as an increasingly dear friend.

“Winter, a year ago, an ice storm broke my favorite tree, a Japanese maple. Then, a few months later, my mom fell and hurt her back. I went to visit her for a few days early last summer and when I came back Murray had not only taken care of my garden but he had planted a new Japanese maple in the spot where the first one had been.

“So that’s the Murray Trager that came into my life, blessed me with his kindness and humor, and taught me how valuable each day is. I can’t quite do justice to his generosity. He offered and taught me so much.

“The only thing he couldn’t give me is the one thing I wanted most. It was one more day. To be with him. Just…”

With that Helen’s voice snagged in her throat.

“Just again.”

She pulled an already crumpled tissue up to wipe her eyes.

“Thank you for letting me speak. There was a lot about Murray that made him a great man.”

With that she nodded to Father James and walked solemnly back to her pew.


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