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If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be friends - no close friends - with the next music director at my church, I’d have considered you crazy.
The then-current music director, Calvin Hodge, was like a grandfather to me, and I’d have told you no one could fill his shoes. I’d have wondered who could even pretend to take his place. Who would step up and dare do such a thing?
Enter Stephen Byrd. After a short stint of replacements when Calvin got sick in late 2013 and eventually passed away in early 2014, the church gave Stephen the job “full-time.”
I was appalled. Stephen didn’t know music (I’m the church pianist; have been since 1997, and I’ve played since I was 5). How was I supposed to get along with this person?
Oh, the growing pains he and I had. Stephen wanted to slow down our repertoire a bit. I was still racing through it like Richard Petty looking for another championship win. Calvin had, for at least two decades, sang songs really fast due to breathing issues.
You could start singing Amazing Grace when my choir did, and we’d be on the fifth verse before you even thought about singing the third. Stephen wanted to back things off a bit.
I tried, but 17 years of playing these songs at breakneck speed just didn’t go away lightly. We never fought; we may have butted heads a bit. Stephen, feeling badly I suppose about having to say anything, had the preacher talk to me one time.
Eventually ,we began to find a “meshing point.” And what was a working relationship became a friendly one as well.
Most of our readership knows that I began regular excursions into the hospital in December 2017. Stephen and his wife, Jennifer - a childhood friend - were the first to come and see me after the pastor, Kevin. Stephen brought me sour candy; shaved ice; a fan; music so I could play in the hospital chapel; and basically anything else my heart desired. Kevin did as well.
I don’t want to diminish Kevin’s contributions, because they were many. But Kevin is my pastor, my minister. Most of these things are expected of him, at least the visits.
Stephen, though music director, didn’t have to do any of it.
Last year, in September 2018, when I moved into another home after coming out of the hospital, Stephen helped move in all the heavy furniture. He helped move it all back out just four months later when it didn’t work out with the woman I was living with.
The day I moved into that house on Alpine Drive right behind our church, I bought a queen-sized air mattress to sleep on. My plan was to ultimately find a recliner set to sleep on (to keep fluid out of my lungs), but I ultimately loved the air mattress so much that I bought a second one and put it on top of the first and just used that as my bed.
Anyway, the first air mattress was pulled out of the box and Stephen put it on the floor. It had no accessory with which one could blow it up. Stephen and I had spent at least two hours in Walmart looking at these and other things I needed. He was livid. He told me to stay at the house and he would take care of it. More than two hours later, Stephen came back with another queen-sized air mattress, this one with a plug and switch that automatically inflated it.
He had spent much of the time arguing with the store management, who were adamant that I take the first bed I bought. Stephen stood firm. And I got the best air mattress I’ve ever owned.
Since then, Stephen has taken me to dialysis treatments; he’s picked me up from them; he’s bought me food when all my money went to pharmaceuticals to keep me alive; he’s helped me get to doctor’s appointments; and he even drove me back and forth to Columbia one time when I could’ve just taken the bus.
Stephen is a sanitation worker with the city of Sumter. He has been for more than 15 years. As such, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. And he’ll forgive me for saying that he has a bit of a speech impediment, although he’s worked hard over the years to hide it.
Anyone makes fun of those two things, and hell flies through me. I don’t remember where we were, but someone said Stephen was “just a garbageman.”
I said, “Well, you’re just fat and ugly.”
Jesus may not have been proud, but my grandma sure would’ve been.
And when I got that protective - I’d say that was about a year ago - it’s when I knew that Stephen was now part of the collection of best friends. My best friends are like Lays potato chips: I can’t just have one. I have six at last count.
And I’m proud to have Stephen as the newest member of the fold. I know I don’t tell him nearly enough, and there is nothing I can do really to ever repay him or his family (who have sacrificed with time away from a father and a husband).
So. I will just say “Thank you,” yet again to an upstanding human being and someone that I look up to each and every day.
Robert Joseph Baker is the former managing editor for The Manning Times. He still talks to Leigh Ann just about every morning because, let’s face it, they’re codependent and really need therapy before they can separate from each other. He’s ready for her to be out of this school thing come the new year so they can do stuff again.