I sat in the cafeteria, sipping a juicebox, waiting for the right moment. The lunch aid turned her head for a moment, to help some student or other. I bolted out the door, sneaking behind her back, and after a few rushed moments of sprinting through the school halls, I was safe in the dark confines of the auditorium. The piano bench squeaked, as I placed my heavy books down to the side. Grunting a bit, I lifted the heavy lid of the grand piano up, allowing for the full sound of the instrument to resonate through the auditorium. I sat down, and began to play.
A half an hour went by, stumbling through passages of Chopin, botching phrases by Rachmaninov, and improvising themes from Harry Connick, Jr. Suddenly, a voice bellowed out “Lovely.” I looked up. I recognized him by his voice. There, in the dark, in the back right corner of the auditorium, was Mr. Fardig. His son, Steven, was in my class. Mr. Fardig had stolen through the door, and had been standing and listening for quite some time. He opened the door, and left. I felt sheepish, I was an awkward thirteen year old, and I knew that plenty of unbridled teenage angst had gushed from my fingers. But, the way Mr. Fardig phrased those words, I knew that he enjoyed listening.
Mr. Fardig, or Carl, had no official job or title, at Smithtown Christian School. And yet, Carl and his wife, Kathy, were part of the backbone of the school. The school was wonderful, but the school was always on a lean budget, and so it limped and wheezed it’s way through each academic year. Through the many years, Carl and Kathy came and propped the school up. They organized various fundraisers, they cooked in the cafeteria, they prepared feasts for the teachers and administration, they hosted various events and outdoor festivals. They were always on the other side of the counter, pouring your soup, filling out your form, running the dunk tank at the spring fair. And as they served, they laughed- Carl was always joking, always ribbing, always making the room glow with a raucous sense of humor. Alone, in a room, Carl was quiet and softspoken, with a timely bit of insightful advice that always cut to the quick. Kathy regularly organized wrapping paper drives, where sales of wrapping paper and other items would contribute towards some big purchase on behalf of the school. When the big day arrived, and the sums were tallied, and the school announced that the new computers could now be purchased for the computer department, Kathy and Carl were nohwere to be found. They were not there for the spotlight.
After watching Kathy and Carl pour out their lives, selflessly, for years and years on end, one day the politics shifted at Smithtown Christian School. Carl and Kathy were somehow squeezed out by forces which, still to this day, I can not understand. Way high up in administration, someone had grabbed the tiller, and had directed the school towards a purging. In a shocking move, Carl and Kathy’s sons, Steven and Peter, were kicked out of the school. The purging continued- just days later, my younger brother was kicked out, as well. The school was filled with so many wonderful teachers and administrators, so many kindhearted people, that it was very difficult to imagine where this had come from. At night, I heard my mother crying, in her bedroom, and I knew that Carl and Kathy had to be doing the same. The halls seemed hollow, as we quietly shuttled back and forth to class.
Steven and I were still friends, and we hung out with the same group of friends, on the weekends. One day, Steven said his mother was at the hospital. That’s all he would say. And at the age of seventeen or so, I stood in the living room of Carl and Kathy’s home. Kathy’s body was thin, worn down by her long battle with cancer. And yet, even though her frame was weak, she exuded a strength. She spoke softly and quietly to me, asking me how my parents were, how my brother was. Her countenance was vibrant, determined. She asked me what I wanted to go to college for. Her eyes were so beautiful and warm, and I bit my lip and held back tears.
This weekend is the WetPaints Festival of Gallery North, in Setauket. It’s a time when artists from all over Long Island come out to paint various landscapes and what not, in the Setauket area. The public is encouraged to stop by and watch the artists at work. My designated spot for painting is the front the porch of Gallery North. My portrait sitter is Carl Fardig. A full twelve years or so has passed since I have enjoyed a good clip of time in Carl’s company. And yesterday, he was funnier than ever, pleasant, his humor lifting every person who came through our space. He smiled, and told stories to me about the time he spent living in Sweden. He was quiet, and softspoken, and spoke tenderly about the passing of his wife, Kathy. We exchanged wonderful stories about Smithtown Christian school. I described the soccer teams that, despite small numbers to draw from, had some impressive wins against bigger schools. I shared that, twelve years after graduating, I still count one of my closest friends to be my former teacher from Smithtown Christian School; this teacher has been a friend to me since I was in eighth grade, and continues to lead me by example. There was so much good that we could reflect on, in all that we continue to love about that school. The conversation continued to ramble on. Carl was a lover of folk culture, sharing historical tidbits about Australian ballads. Best of all, Carl couples together a sincere devotion to God, with a delightfully irreverent sense of humor- he loves to laugh about life. His company is wonderful.
You know, while I watched Carl laugh and talk, some difficult, long standing questions were satisfied, for me. I do not know why good people suffer. I really don’t understand. But, I know that, in spite of suffering, there is the willful act of joy in living. Carl’s animated face is a mixture of laughter and sadness, of pain and joy. He couldn’t control the lot he had received, but he responded to it by sifting. He sifts out the pain and heartache, continually, and in conversation he retains the substance and joy of memories, and things that are, and things that are to be. That’s how I want to be. As I reflected on all these things, Carl and I quietly looked out on a fellow artist, painting away pleasantly on a patch of green grass across the street from our spot. The artist had plopped down on the front lawn of the Setauket Historical Society. And, as the young artist relished the splendor of the front lawn, and the cedar clad buildings, and the magnificent, towering elms around her, a few big trucks pulled up to the curb. Numerous town employees emerged with hulking lawnmowers, weedwackers, and leaf blowers, engulfing the aspiring artist in a sea of grass clippings, dust, and loud, belching engine fumes. Easels were lifted, paintings fumbled, brushes and paletts hastily relocated in frantic flight. As I listened to Carl’s deep belly laugh, and watched him howl with delight at the Rockwellian absurdity of the scene, I thought to myself- that’s it! Carl embodies Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
Feel free to stop by on Saturday and Sunday, as well. I’ll be working on the painting, with Carl, on the front porch of Gallery North, from 1 til 7. Afterwards, we’re going to go next door, and grab a pint of Guinness from the Checkmate Inn. You’re welcome too.
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!