This is what I have to remember him by: a nail file, made of metal, with my name scratched on it in ballpoint pen. He left it for me in the Elves Chasm boatman’s mailbox in Grand Canyon — it was the only piece of “mail” I ever received there. I knew about that informal message center, but I never really paid it much mind. Never, that is, until Wesley’s gift turned up in it.
I scratched my head when a colleague who’d collected the mail delivered it to me. Only later, when I had the chance to see Wesley and thank him, did he remind me, “You told me it was the one thing you didn’t have.”
True. Somehow when we’d been talking, the subject of filing nails had come up, and I’d said that a nail file was the one thing missing from my toiletry bag. Leave it to Wesley to remember. He never forgot the things we told him.
He had served as a foot soldier in Vietnam. When he came home to his small hometown in Arizona, he lived with his mother and worked various jobs. One of these was as a Grand Canyon river guide. That’s where I met him — me, who’d only felt the war from a distance, beginning with the news in 1967 that one neighbor’s son had been killed in action.
Wesley befriended me, as he befriended everyone, but he never held onto us too tight. He loved us when we were there, but didn’t reach too far across the chasm between our lives when we weren’t. Now I believe that he had trained himself to detach from us. It was part of his strategy for survival.
The last time I saw Wesley, it was after he’d left us. He lay in a casket wearing a dark suit and tie. I’d never known him to wear anything other than river shorts and a sun shirt, and the outfit he would be buried in clearly honored his spirit but didn’t capture it. And obviously his bright, loving soul had flown. But I still remembered it, and I couldn’t forget his aliveness. I still own the nail file, kept deep in the bottom of an ammo box to happen upon when I least expect to.
My hope today is that we see and remember the details of our loving lives now, while we still have them. Simultaneously may we remember those who have gone before. Wesley and many generations of others served us with all their hearts. Today I’m reminded to live in a way worthy of who they were and what they gave.