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Amid all the uproar about Cassie Edwards and plagiarism, the edits on my next book, and waiting to hear about the one I just submitted, comes the sad, although not completely unexpected, news of Brad Renfro’s death.

Brad was a student at Lincoln Park School in Knoxville when I first started teaching there.  He was never in my class, but Lincoln Park was a small inner city school and all the teachers knew all the students.  And well, Brad was one of those who would’ve stood out even in a school of a thousand or more students.  You couldn’t miss him.

In fifth grade, his teacher was a good friend of mine, Laura Lawson, and hearing of his death brings her to mind too.  Laura, who turned her classroom into a castle one year, who could handle even the worst behaved student, who died at an early age of breast cancer.

But before she left us, she changed our lives immeasurably, probably Brad’s more than anyone else’s.  You see, Laura was the one who told the D.A.R.E. officer about Brad.  So while the officer, Dennis Bowman, saw the casting call for the character of Mark Sway in the movie based on John Grisham’s The Client, and sent Brad’s name in, it was Laura who first saw the possibilities in her young student.  Brad fit that role to a T.  And he got it.

Then, when the time came to film the movie, it was Laura they called when they started having trouble keeping Brad in line.  She was with him during the second audition and she took time off from teaching to be with him during the filming.  Brad could be, like all young boys, a nightmare, but one you couldn’t help but enjoy.  Or maybe that’s due to the fact that he was a smart-ass, and of all the kids i ever met, I have a special fondness for the smart-asses.  Brad was also street smart, quick-witted, and attractive, with charm oozing from every pore of his body.  The things I remember most about him; he wore a long trench coat to school almost every day, he loved Led Zeppelin, and on Valentine’s Day, he wore a cardboard sign around his neck:  Will Work for Valentines.  

After his debut in The Client, he went on to other roles in other movies, but his best in my opinion was young Michael Sullivan in Sleepers.  Brad Pitt played the grown-up Michael, and like the character of Mark Sway, they couldn’t have chosen a better actor for that role. 

He was only twenty-five when he passed away at his home in California yesterday.  He’d had trouble in the past with drug and alcohol addiction, so I’m not sure what they’ll find when they do the autopsy, and to be honest, I don’t really care.  I’m just sorry he’s gone.

God be with you, Brad.  I’m sure Laura’s waiting at the gates of heaven to greet you.

It’s been a while since I posted anything because I’m in Florida with my sister this week–something we both would normally enjoy–but right now, Tampa is a very scary place for both of us.  Too many maybe/maybe nots, hurry up and waits, and what ifs as our dad goes through tests to see if his cancer has returned.  Neither one of us wants to be here for that.  We’d much rather be lounging on the beach or just sitting around listening to him tell us stories about his life.

He grew up on a mountain in North Carolina–very close to where I live now–in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing.  He was born during the Depression, grew up during World War II, served in the Navy during Korea then settled down in Tennesse with my mom, and went to work for the local newspaper as a commercial artist.  Oh, and fathered five kids.  He’s an awesome painter who works mostly in oils, but to me his greatest talent lies in story-telling.

His stories of growing up on an isolated mountain are often funny, usually poignant, and most of them include a clue about what made him the man he is today.  There are numerous characters; most relatives, some friends or acquaintances, and some people who showed up for a brief moment in his life then walked out, leaving behind a lasting memory that inspired a story in later years.

Most of the relatives that are featured in his stories are buried in a small graveyard at Stone Mountain Baptist Church–the only building farther up the mountain than the house where my dad grew up.  When I was a child, we spent a lot of time on that mountain and it was a fascinating place filled with extraordinary people.  Today, whenever I go back  and drive that twisting road that leads up to the church, it’s like taking a walk back in time, not only through my childhood, but through the childhood of my dad.  I recognize the names on the tombstones and each name recalls at least one story, usually two or three or even more.

The thing is…as I listened to my dad talk over dinner last night, it hit me that one day he would no longer be there to entertain me with his stories.  I also realized I’ve been very lucky in my life never to have lost anyone in my immediate family.  My grandparents are all gone, as are quite a few of my aunts and uncles and a few cousins, but no one I am really close to.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were a part of my life, always there in my peripheral vision, but they weren’t as important as my parents or my brothers and sisters.

And I have to wonder, how am I going to handle it when I do lose one of the “important people” in my life?  I can’t fathom a world where my dad isn’t there to lift my spirits with a funny story, or my mom isn’t there to take charge and handle all the little mundane things when my MS flares up and I’m unable to handle them myself, or my sister isn’t there to encourage me and spur me on despite my tendency to hide away in a corner and avoid contact with the outside world.  And my husband…well, I won’t even go there.

One or any of them, it’s a devastating thought. 

They’ll live on in my memory, of course, but a light will have gone out in my world.  I don’t want that to happen and have decided one way I can keep my dad’s light burning is to write down the stories he tells and try to compile a book from them.  Since he is an artist, I would love to incorporate some of his work in the book.

If I can do that, maybe, just maybe, the light will flicker, but it won’t go out altogether.        

Whistling Woman by CC Tillery

Winds of Fate

Storm Shadows

Snow Shadows

PMS Anthology

Romance of My Dreams