There are some people who are always with us.
Lowell and I immediately connected.
We met at a publishing house, where he was the executive editor, and I had just been hired, several years out of college, to edit a magazine that featured stories about the business, politics, sports, and night life of a city.
He later told me that, in many ways, he saw me as a younger version of himself. And I could listen to his raspy, smoke-stained voice for hours as he’d tell tales about the ups and downs of working in the publishing world in New York, where he’d spent all but the twilight of his career.
I remember one day in particular when he said something that I’ll always carry with me.
I had just written a cover story about how people who were unemployed were trying to make it in the city. I began by focusing on a man named Tucker, who was at his rope’s end. He’d come here from Nigeria to pursue his dream. And all seemed well. Then, he was downsized from his job at a bottling plant. He said he realized that, because of his accent, he wasn’t coming across well in job interviews. And he was just about to run out of assistance from the state. In the article, I described how he and his wife were trying to stretch the little food they had to feed themselves and their two children; how he’d just had to stop paying his electric bill; how he’d already given up his telephone; what it was like walking miles to interviews; and his fears that he was running out of options. Yet, still, deep inside of him, there was a profound belief that his seemingly hopeless situation would somehow turn around.
The day the article appeared, the publisher came into my office, slammed the door, and let me know in no uncertain terms that he was furious about this negative article appearing in his magazine. He told me I was going to lose him advertisers. Then he left, slamming the door again.
A few minutes later, Lowell came in and asked what was going on. (As if he didn’t know.)
I told him, looking obviously upset.
He just stared at me, shook his head, then said, “Sweeney, that was a great story. But if you’re going to continue writing great stories, you’ve got to figure out who is worth listening to. And you certainly can’t listen to every (then he used a word I wasn’t expecting) who comes along.”
Lowell then smiled at me, nodded, and we both started laughing.
It wasn’t the advice I expected.
But it was exactly what I needed.
Later that day, I got a call from the owner of a company who asked me if the man I had written about was really as I described him. I said, absolutely. He said, “In that case, I want to offer him a job.” And I couldn’t believe my ears. I thanked him, repeatedly and profusely, hung up the phone, wiped a tear from my eye, then drove over to Tucker’s house to take him to his new job.
Years later, when Lowell was dying from lung cancer, we would talk on the phone. But refused to let me come by to see him. I asked several times, but he was insistent, saying he did not want me to remember him this way.
Several times I would drive by his house, look over, and drive on.
Then one day, I just pulled in his driveway. And I knocked on his door.
When he answered he looked at me in disbelief, then, firmly, said, “I told you not to come.”
I remember looking down at the ground, then looking up at him, saying, “I know. I heard you. I get that you must feel different because of what you’re going through. But you’re still the same to me, Lowell – and you always will be.” I paused, then added, “I just needed to see you.”
He shook his head, stared as if in the distance, then smiled slowly, and said, “Sweeney, come on in.”
Sitting on his couch, we settled into a lengthy conversation about how he was doing, how scared he was, how it wasn’t going to be much longer, and how he did not want to go this way. We also recalled some of the fondest times we’d had together, and wondered about some of the off-beat characters where we used to work. After a while, he said he was feeling tired and had to call it a day. As we hugged each other, he said, “I don’t know why I was avoiding this.”
The next day, Bette, his wife called me on the phone. Hearing her voice, I braced myself, as she told me that Lowell had passed away in the night. All I could say was, “No!”. Then, she said, “I want you to know that last night he told me what a great conversation he had with you. And that he was looking forward to getting together with you again.”
Lowell helped me in countless ways.
He helped me to find myself, to discover my inner voice, and to trust my instincts.
And, in the end, he also helped me to defy him. To have the courage to say “no” to him, and to show up at his doorstep. So that I could say “yes” to him – and to myself.