It is so fitting that there are raindrops falling today. Last night a dear friend and one of the best men I’ve had the privilege of knowing all my life lost his fight and went to be with his Maker. I don’t remember life without knowing Jeff Reid. He was the son of a neighbor and the brother of one of my friends, Alicia. Though the Reids lived maybe half a mile from my family, the babysitter’s house where I spent every afternoon after school and all summer was practically across the street from theirs. Alicia and I walked the same route to school daily all through our years at Long Creek Elementary and we played together after school and through the hot Carolina summers.
When we were small, Jeff, who was a decade older than us, was just a friend’s nice older brother to me. I would see him in passing. He was a teenager, living a normal teenager’s life. And then tragedy struck. When Jeff was in his late teens and Alicia and I were nine or so their dad passed away unexpectedly, leaving their mother, Marcelle, who was in her forties with four children to raise on her own. Soon, Jeff was working at Puckett Brothers Store. He had always been a responsible kid, a great big brother, but now he took on another role. I think he knew that his brothers, Brent and Craig, and his sister, Alicia, needed a father figure and determined he would be it.
I first came to really notice and admire Jeff about this time. I was walking home from school, barefoot, as I almost always sat on the front steps of the school and removed my shoes if the day was warm enough before setting off to walk to the babysitters’ half a mile away. Only about a quarter of the way into my walk, I stepped on a yellow jacket buzzing among the Bachelor Buttons along the roadside. About a minute later Jeff drove by. He noticed me limping and stopped to ask if I was okay. As soon as I explained about the sting he told me to hop in and took me the rest of the way to the babysitters’ house. He was my hero that day!
Jeff worked hard at school and at work and soon after graduation he became a Charlotte Firefighter. Meanwhile he continued to work at Puckett’s Store (in Long Creek) on his days off, helped his mother and siblings, and married his longtime girlfriend, Vickie. I thought the firefighting profession was perfect for Jeff. His caring, nurturing spirit and quiet strength were the perfect potion for a career in service to others.
I had grown to admire the young man Jeff had become and I made a point of stopping in at Puckett’s to see him. He treated me like I was his little sister, always taking the time to ask about school, my family, what I was up to. I remember the first time I drove my own car up to the pumps at sixteen. Jeff came out to fill it up. He was shaking his head and saying, “You can’t be old enough to drive!” Of course he knew I was because Alicia and I were the same age. He told me to be careful while he checked the oil level, washed my windshield, and topped off the tank. I looked forward to stopping in and chatting with him so much that I almost always went to Pucketts whenever I needed gas.
On the second day of June, 1983, I pulled up to the pumps and Jeff responded to the bell inside the store. As he filled my tank he asked, “So, are you heading to the beach tomorrow for Graduation Week?” When I said I was, I’m sure he was a little surprised. I know I was. My mom was notoriously strict and it had taken a lot of begging and promises to secure permission to head to Myrtle Beach for a week with my friends. Of course, I was eighteen. That didn’t matter to my protective mother. If she had stuck to her initial “No!” I would not have gone. Jeff laughed as I told him about the guilt trip I had laid on my mom to get her permission to go. Grinning, he said, “Pop your trunk. I want to check the air in your spare tire before you start off on such a long drive.” When he got the tire out of the trunk, it was nearly flat. Spare tires were not something this eighteen year old fairly privileged kid ever thought about. He checked the tire for nail holes, filled it up, and put it back in the trunk. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, but, truly, didn’t think that much about his kind act …. until the other side of Darlington, SC, when I heard thump, thump, thump! My friends and I pulled off in someone’s driveway. My boyfriend, Darryl, hopped out of the car and walked clockwise around it. When he looked at the front passenger side tire, there was a large bump protruding from the tire. Just as he got into a full squat to look at it, the growth blew, air hissing out and a piece of rubber struck him just to the left of his left eye. A kindly old man had come out of the house to see who was in his driveway. As we took all of our luggage out of the trunk and retrieved that nice plump spare tire, I thought of Jeff, and praised his name for that thoughtful, caring nature of his. The Gallivant’s Ferry gentleman helped us change the tire and told us to be careful on our trip, reminding me again of Jeff’s words the day before.
At twenty I married my high school sweetheart and moved to Harrisburg, NC. It was twenty or so miles from Long Creek and I didn’t get to make my weekly stop at Puckett’s quite as often anymore. On the rare occasion I got to stop in, I reminded Jeff of his prior good deeds in my life and thanked him again. He would brush it off as nothing special, saying he just did what anyone else would do. He was wrong, but his humble nature didn’t allow him to see how special he truly was.
Eventually, Jeff quit working at the store. He was a full time firefighter, raising two kids. I kept up with him through his sister and, later, my dad who went to church with him. I’d send along greetings and well wishes and retell the stories of him rescuing me, not one, but twice. Through them, I knew he was still happily married to Vickie and had raised a daughter and a son. I was so happy for him, living the good life.
Then, in 2007, the news turned to not so good. Jeff had been diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). This morning I woke to a text from Alicia delivering the sad, sad news that my friend, her brother, was gone. I was so happy that he was not suffering anymore, but so sad for those of us who loved him.
I sat at breakfast with my dad and delivered the news that Jeff was gone. We both took a minute to talk about his incredible kindness, his strength, his faith, and the love he had for his mother, his siblings, his children and grandchildren. We talked about how much we admired the man he had been. At only 66, he was gone. My dad said, “I just don’t understand why things like this happen to such good people.” I told him I had been thinking the same thing just yesterday. Then I thought about all of the people Jeff’s life and his illness had touched. I thought about all of the church members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family who had come together to pray for him, to minister to his family. I wondered how many others out there had admired him, marveled at and drawn inspiration from his incredible fighting spirit. Jeff was the definition of a good Christian family man. The way he lived his life was a testament to his faith and his love, his kindness and consideration. It hurts so much to lose him, but it feels so good to have had him in our lives, showing us how to be, to act, to fight for what is important to us, to love. Approximately 5 out of every 100,000 US adults are diagnosed with CLL each year. Who knows why Jeff was one of those back in 2007? Since that day Jeff and his incredible family have fought the good fight, their lives a testament to love and faith that have touched countless people. We will miss him more than words can say, all while counting our blessings that we got to have him in our lives at all. We were all blessed to know him.