For about 10 minutes last Saturday, I stared at Richard “Cooter” King, a man I have grown to admire over the years. My admiration is even stronger now.
This is a column about love, loss and a man’s strength.
I don’t see 84-year-old King very often, probably about twice a year at the most. But if you multiply that by more than 30 years, I guess you can say that while we are not close friends, we have gotten to know each other a little bit.
King is my wife’s uncle. He lives in what the locals say is the “country” part of Delhi, a small town about 30 minutes south of Monroe. There’s a big grocery store there, a great place with wonderful people that sells many flavors of delicious chicken wings.
Delhi is my wife’s hometown. There are no pretentions there. What you see is what you get. The people, and especially my mother-in-law, accept you immediately. However, one misstep, and you can instantly fall out of their good graces.
About a month ago, I watched King as he sat at the funeral of his daughter, who had died after a long illness. He sat stoically as the music played, people sang and others spoke kind words. He graciously greeted people. His son, grandchildren and other family members sat nearby.
As this was going on, King knew that Dora Deen, his wife of 59 years, was in a losing battle against cancer.
When my wife and I were dating, King and Deen were welcoming to me, even encouraging me to pick some of the vegetables in their garden. Most of the times King would see me, he would ask, “What’s going on down there in Baton Rouge?” It was as normal and expected as him saying “Hello.”
King is a rock-solid church deacon who can, at a moment’s notice, offer up a five-minute, no-halting-to-find-words prayer in your living room. No one says grace like King.
At his daughter’s wake and funeral, he was King, the guy never lacking for a conversation. He would talk to relatives and well-wishers. Lawd, King can talk.
Once he had buried his daughter, King had to pivot. Deen’s cancer had sapped her strength, and her fight was drawing to a close.
So about a month after burying his daughter, King was completing the burial plan for the love of his life.
At their 50th wedding anniversary celebration a few years back, he told a large crowd about how he was instantly smitten by her and saw no one else on the horizon for him those many years ago.
(I made Deen’s good list a long time ago when I fulfilled her request to take her to a Jimmy Swaggart church service here in Baton Rouge.)
Now, there I was looking at King at Deen’s funeral. He was sitting about 6 feet from her coffin. He just stared. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind.
As some people openly wept during the ceremony, King just stared at the coffin. For a brief moment, he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.
Then, as the funeral was drawing to its end, King walked over to Deen’s open coffin. At this point, I had tears welling up. I could feel the rest of the church fixed on him. How would he handle this? Deen was everything to him. As someone said, “I don’t think King has cooked a meal for himself.”
He put his hand out and tenderly touched the coffin. He looked down at Deen for about a minute. Everyone stared and waited. Then he turned and walked slowly to his seat. He sat and wiped away a few tears. And then it was over. That’s King.
I know that the next time I go to Delhi, I probably will bump into King if he’s not too busy doing what he had done for years — making cemetery headstones. And when I see him, I will get a hoot when he asks me, “Ed, what’s going on down there in Baton Rouge?”
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.