”Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” — Pema Chondron
Part 4, Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet: Leslie and John
Within moments of meeting, our eyes were locked, rapidly welling with great big John Denver love tears.
No one but the two of us had arrived yet, aside from our husbands who accompanied us. Both men sat sort of surreptitiously off to opposite sides, poised as the proverbial good guys that they are, not really knowing what to anticipate. We didn’t know what to anticipate either, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.
The facilitator casually grouped us two women together, seemingly so she could tend to the crowd that never did appear (not while we were present, anyway). For whatever reason, she didn’t seem all that interested in engaging us, but rather eager to cluster us together to free herself. Perhaps she was tired, having already participated in many of the festivities and other storytelling sessions. Regardless, her subtle complacency only underscored our shared enthusiasm.
As it turned out, in the lifelong friendship race, this match could surely set some sort of record. You know simpatico when it arrives. You know when you are with someone who actually makes it all so easy. Someone who doesn’t put on aires. Isn’t competitive, unduly complicated, suspicious, judgmental, self-absorbed, petty, or self-righteous. You realize how important personality is, character. Meetings like this are seamless. It’s as if they started long before you were aware of them. You can’t see any endings in sight. You simply don’t expect acquaintanceships like this, because they are so rare.
With a set gaze and some help from her hands for emphasis, Leslie shared how she was a groupie — my word not hers; I’m pretty sure what she said was, “crazy in love with.” She told in explicit detail how half a lifetime ago she met John Denver both backstage and at a lavish event she wasn’t even invited to. How nice he was, how inordinately kind. How, while everyone else was waiting in line to meet him, he thoughtfully took time out to fix her little camera when it jammed. “The last picture that camera took was of John Denver,” she reflected tenderly, as if knowing instinctively how much I would care. She repeated that she was crazy about him, and told me that all three of her daughters grew up listening to his music. Then, she stopped to qualify that on that first meeting backstage, even though he fixed her camera, there was only a hug.
Whispering rather coquettishly, she continued — in a low, hand-curled-around-her-mouth voice, leaning decisively inward, “You’re going to think I’m terrible…” Of course, her preface only piqued my curiosity. Apparently, it wasn’t until that second meeting, in the cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City, that it happened. Unexpectedly, she had to enact some quick thinking after the one man concert. She persuaded her husband Bill on the spot to crash the gathering that was forming.
“Just stay with me,” she told Bill, as she hurriedly blended in with the crowd. Moments later she found herself enjoying a cocktail, standing right beside John Denver, again. She introduced herself, reminding him of the time he fixed her camera. She said he chuckled, that he said he remembered! This time, he was even more generous. This time, she asked for a kiss, and he gave her one!
With his wife Annie standing right there. With her husband Bill, standing right there.
She was wild and racy and full of fun, with a ready heart that just popped right out of the top of her white turtleneck sweater. She looked like the girl next door, the preacher’s daughter, with all the requisite wild stories attached, a nurse or a teacher. She was all and both…a devoted mom, grandmom, a wife, an EMT, and the recent past president of their local first aid rescue squad. By the time she shared her John Denver stories with me, and I shared mine with her, we were both not only teary-eyed, but somehow bonded ecstatically in one of those surprising kind of ways that cosmically suggest there is a unique and particular order to the universe.
Leslie’s husband Bill was equally engaging. He was open and animated. An interesting guy with an interesting career, now retired and full of spirit and wonder. Having once taught Calculus, he recommended to Rich a book entitled, A Tour of the Calculus, which Rich ordered, and recently received in the mail. Our husbands also seemed to take an instant liking to one another, and also seemed to have plenty to talk about (even though it probably wasn’t John Denver).
After meeting Leslie and Bill, Rich and I rode the chairlift up Aspen Mountain to see the view credited with inspiring “Annie’s Song.” It was a wet, cold ride, as the weather had changed from perfect to wintery, deteriorating particularly that day as we gained elevation. Fortunately, I was dressed for it, and the experience was worth the rain mixed with snow.
We returned to the Mountain Chalet cold and wet to hear new artists perform their original pieces and some more John Denver music. Afterward, we warmed up at Little Annie’s with some hot tea, homemade soup and stew, then turned in early because I was getting pretty wiped out and Rich wanted to watch the Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals in the season playoff game.
On Saturday, we walked through Aspen Farmer’s Market in the rain, and stopped in the shops to make a few souvenir purchases. Rich bought some locally made honey that I’ve been enjoying in my morning tea. We ran into Leslie and Bill on the misty streets of Aspen, and as we were dropping off our purchases back at our hotel, Leslie texted, inviting us to join them for dinner. They even picked us up at the Mountain House Lodge, and Bill drove us in their rented SUV, pointing out several interesting homes and sites along the way. In clearer weather now, we meandered through Roaring Fork Valley to Woody Creek Tavern, one of John Denver’s purported watering holes. There, among the garish memorabilia that kept reminding me for some reason of Wisconsin, Leslie said enthusiastically, “Okay, you tell us your story, and we’ll tell you ours.” Some arguing commenced about who had the wilder story, but really, it was Leslie’s delightful interest in the literary that made her so charming and intriguing.
We enjoyed some really tasty food while sharing our stories. That evening, we all attended the John Denver Tribute Concert at the Wheeler Opera House, where during intermission Leslie said to me, “I’ll never see a door the same way again in my life.” I was amazed that that part of our long story had stuck with her. Simpatico, once again. At the concert, many of John’s former band members (Mack Bailey, Denny Brooks, Jim Curry, Bill Danoff, Alan Deremo, Richie Gajate-Garcia, Jim Horn, Pete Huttlinger, Chris Nole, Jim Salestrom and Steve Weisberg) performed some of the pieces that helped him make popular. There, too, John’s daughter Jesse and his former wife Annie joined the finale. Such loss, recognized by so many–those who truly loved this man and his work. All through the night, it seemed the gravity of John Denver’s tragic ending was in equal proportion to the gifts he gave us. As though he died as he had lived, in an extreme, unexpected, and intensely passionate way.
Long into the nights, throughout Aspen this October, people of all ages shared as Leslie and I did songs and stories of a man dear to their hearts. There were stories about concerts, about songwriting, about lyrics and chords, about travel and about family members, about meeting dignitaries and winning (and losing) cribbage games. There were many stories of unparalleled love and kindness and generosity. There were stories about weddings, about babies being born, about camping and hiking, and about where we were when we heard the tragic news—and what it all meant to us, this incredible loss.
Somehow, people all over the world were brought together by one enormous spirit–the music of an especially gifted storyteller. And that talent of bringing people together has become part of John Denver’s legacy. He did it in so many ways while he was alive, and Leslie and I are proof that he still does.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.