The Appalachian mountains in western North Carolina are home to some fascinating people. I have met a nurse who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, an actor who does films with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, famous writers, gay couples, tobacco farmers, retired Floridians and immigrants from Australia. But a week ago this collection of locals from the small town of Todd (population 2065) gave from the heart to help a neighbor who unexpectedly discovered he had advanced melanoma skin cancer and I saw once again how generous these mountain people are as well.
Jack is an active outdoor kind of guy who has worked as a real estate agent by day and musician by night. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail, flown across the country to play gigs with his band and he has been married for two years to a lovely woman who moved from Ohio to join him and now runs the local Mercantile gift shop -- and there are only two shops in Todd! A few months ago Jack told me that he had started having some minor chest pain so he consulted his physician brother-in-law who was concerned and recommended that he get more testing. That is when Jack was told that he had Stage IV cancer which had spread to various organs.
The shock of this diagnosis for such a popular figure was devastating to this small community. Right away people came forward to help, including my own offer of air miles to fly Jack's children in to visit and another offer of a house in Raleigh to stay when he had to go to Duke for treatment. Then when neighbors learned that Jack did not have private health insurance, a common situation in the mountains, and his expenses were adding up they rallied to organize a fund raiser as only mountain folk can do -- a silent auction of artisan crafts with blue grass music.
The mountains in NC are filled with craftsmen who polish slabs of fallen old growth trees into elegant tables, paint old fashioned sleighs, make banjos and weave wall hangings. Their work is beautifully fashioned, unique and often recalls an era of simple homemade handicrafts and self reliance. The blue grass music of the area has its roots in English and Scottish ballads that the immigrants brought with them to the isolated mountains in the 18th century. So all these talented people of Todd shared their gifts on a special night for Jack.
Tables were crowded with donated food, hot cider and coffee. The handicrafts, musical instruments, art work, baked goods and their accompanying bid sheets stretched through the gallery space of the Mercantile. Four bands played during the evening with some members coming in from Virginia to help. Ballads of Tom Dooley and Joe Wood, infamous characters from the area, were played and neighbors, many who didn't have much to spare, opened their wallets. Jack who attended, despite recent hemorrhaging in his brain and radiation treatment days earlier to stop it, was overwhelmed by the support. In his low key and humble way, Jack and his wife Helen thanked everyone and joked, somewhat seriously, that they now might actually be able to have heat this winter as a result of their neighbor's kindness.
I was so inspired by the generosity shown that night that when we drove down the mountain the next day I insisted that we stop to give a lift to a man walking on the side of the highway. He was on his way to church services, almost five miles away it turned out, and he proudly told me through a mouth stiff with cold and containing very few teeth, that he was eighty three years old. He was wearing what was probably his best clothes -- a tattered green blazer over bulky sweaters, an ancient plaid tie carefully tied and the battered dirty sneakers of the homeless. His effort at dressing was sadly touching and it was also obvious that he didn't have any family. We loaded his pocket with cash before helping him out of the car at the church where I hope that he would get a lot more help inside.
I will not forget that man and his circumstances. It does force me to review my good fortune and blessings at this time of year. And I will always admire the people of Todd for their sense of community -- it is something we all need to foster throughout the year.