Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lean On Me

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here on January 6th, a few weeks earlier than we had planned. We came early because our friend Harold Bellanger had gone into the hospital, and his family was worried about his prospects. After over two weeks in the hospital, most of that time spent in ICU, Harold passed away late in the afternoon on January 20th.

Mister Harold was the patriarch of a family we worked for in the spring of 2008. At the time, they had moved back into their nearly-restored home in Gentilly, but didn't have the funds to complete the rebuilding of their upper level. Our son Kevan provided the funds we used to rebuild the floors and prepare the upstairs walls for paint, and Ann and I, with help from our NOLA brothers Reggie and Nic, worked with other volunteers to do the work necessary to essentially complete the rebuilding of their storm-damaged home.

In the process of doing that work, we formed a bond with the Bellangers that grew. On every trip thereafter, we visited with them, had meals with them, and basically became good neighbors with them. From the beginning, we were drawn to their bond of family. Harold and Baby Ray were anchors not only in their home, but in their neighborhood. They were the family that other homeowners in the neighborhood contacted after Katrina, to see if they were coming home to rebuild. If they came home to rebuild, other families would, too. If they weren't coming back, well.....

Harold Bellanger and his wife Baby Ray were both born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. According to Harold, Ray was his first and only love. They married almost 50 years ago and settled in New Orleans. He had a career in Pharmacy Services for Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where Ray told me that Harold made it his life's business to make sure that no one went without their required medicines, regardless of their finances. "If he heard that a patient needed medicine but couldn't afford it, Harold would gather samples of medicines, and would work on pharmaceutical company representatives to get whatever was needed. He always made sure everyone had what they needed." In 1980, he was one of 10 Louisiana State employees who received the Charles E. Dunbar Award, given annually to state and local municipal employees who, "distinguish themselves through unselfish service to the citizens of Louisiana". Before we met, Harry was the guy who took the garbage can to the street on garbage day for older residents of the neighborhood. He was the guy who mowed their lawns and planted their spring flowers so their yards looked nice. He was a volunteer crossing guard at the neighborhood elementary school, long after his kids became adults. He did all of this because, well, that's what people do, right? He just did it because he was a member of his community, and he cared about the people who lived there.

Harold suffered from diabetes, and from the day we met him almost 6 years ago, his mobility was limited by the damage that disease had visited upon his feet. Sometimes when we saw him, he was mobile, and sometimes he sat on the couch. The Harry Bellanger we met had already lived a full and happy life, full and happy not because of what he owned or adventures he'd gone on, but full and happy in the most essential ways, deriving his joy of life from the love he gave and got from his family, his full participation in the life and happiness of his community, and his straightforward notions of fair-play, justice, and a person's obligation to his fellow human beings. Never strident. Simply living his life as he knew it was supposed to be lived, and happy as a result. His parents must have really been something.

The man loved his family. By his family, I mean his wife and children, their children, his nieces and nephews, their children, cousins, and anyone else close to them. This man set a standard for love of family the rest of us can only aspire to. And he was all in. If a grandson needed a bit of guidance, there he was in the most positive and determined way. Self-esteem was earned, not awarded with purple participant ribbons in that home. And he did it with a light hand and heart.

His spirit lives on. His grandsons walk the neighborhood, taking care of garbage cans and lawns. Fine young men who were shown a way that's been lost in so many other places.

Awhile back, we spent part of an afternoon just shooting the bull, two guys. I remarked to him that he turned 20 in the Deep South in 1962, right in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. What was it like, I asked him, to be a young black man in Louisiana in the early 60's? His high school was segregated, of course, and I was curious what it was like at the time, how his consciousness was occupied. "Oh, it was alright," he told me. "We had what we needed, and everything was OK for us." I didn't push for more information. This man had a backbone of steel, and approached his life as a 20 year old in the same way he did at 70. I think he saw himself as a man, without further qualification necessary or desired.

We buried Mister Harold on Saturday, February 1st. Ann and I had the honor of sitting with his family, and we got to hear stories about him as a younger, healthier man. We saw pictures of him with Ray at their high school prom. We sat in the midst of a grieving family who loved and honored him, sharing stories that helped us laugh our way through our sorrow.

Hurricane Katrina, a terrible disaster, brought us together with Harry and his family. I am forever grateful for that awful event.

Rest in Peace, Harry. You have earned it.

My love to all,


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