It started one Sunday, when I slid into the third-row pew next to a slender man with rumbled silver hair just as the first notes of the organ announced that service was starting.
He wore a blue polyester sports jacket, plaid knit slacks, a crumbled shirt and an incredibly wide tie. He nodded and I smiled, as I noticed that one of his clear blue eyes drew inward toward his nose. A moment later, he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a piece of hard caramel candy and, unsmiling, handed it to me.
My friendship with Gary was born at that moment. I began to sit with him each Sunday. As he awaited my right-at-the-last-moment arrival, his eyes anxiously watched the door and he tenaciously protected my place next to him.
"No!" he would say firmly to anyone who threatened to sit next to him. "I'm saving this for my friend."
Gary had a hard time talking. In fact, everything was hard for Gary. One leg was noticeably shorter than the other with the foot turned inward, so walking was difficult and laborious. A hand was also drawn and turned. Each word he spoke was delivered with great might and required a pause between words. But he was a hero of mine. He lived independently, cut his own grass, and drove himself. He made do as best he could. It was nothing short of admirable.
He was always there when I needed friends, such as taking his place at the end of pew at my brother's funeral and looking mournfully sad with tears in his eyes as my family filed out of the church. I reached over and took his hand, squeezing it as I smiled sadly. When Mama died, it took great effort for him to be there, but he was. Nothing could keep him away.
Whenever Gary looked at me, his eyes swelled with adoration and affection. It is fair to say that he worshipped me, and I must admit that it felt so good to be so loved by someone else. To some, Gary wasn't much but, to me, he was a lot. We all want to be important to others, and I knew I was incredibly important to him. It meant so much to my heart. It seemed to give an increased purpose to my being.
One Sunday after church, he reached across me and tugged on Mama's arm. "I want to thank you for bringing Ronda into this world," he said in his slow, laborious drawl.
I was touched, but Mama was tickled. She waved the comment off, and laughingly said, "Oh my."
"Hey," I said, slapping her arm. "Let's have a little reverence here."
Death is never convenient, never wanted, so when Gary's unexpected death came, I was out of town for several days. My sister called. "I didn't want to tell you this since you're gone but I knew you'd pull the obituaries up online and see it so I thought I'd better call."
But she was wrong, for there was no obituary. At least not immediately. It was over a week before one appeared. I searched daily for it. This man who had touched my life powerfully did not have an appropriate sonnet to recall the poetry of his life. He disappeared without much of a trace.
As I absorbed my great loss, a video of Gary played through my thoughts -- how he looked at me like a worshipful puppy, how he would take my hand and pat it awkwardly like a baby just learning how to coordinate a movement, how he would bring me candy and CDs that he made for me.
From my life, I had lost someone who had nothing to give but love, yet he gave it with concentrated abundance. Gary, a man who many thought had little to contribute, made a memorable, strong impact on my life.
"He's free from his ailments and difficulties," others said to me sweetly, compassionately. "He's better off."
Yes, he is.
But I'm not.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Please visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.