GALEN HOLLEY: Saying goodbye to my uncle, the lion

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

He’s been dreaming, he says, about the Ark of the Covenant, buried somewhere in the hot dust of Africa. The vision comes to him in the small, pain-wracked hours when the world sleeps.
These are the visions of a lion, a man fierce with haunches scarred from a lifetime of combat. In his dreams he prowls over the plain of his life, roaring at enemies, chasing adversaries into the shadows.
It’s a softer world now, a world more womanly some would say and gentler and better therefore. It was not a gentle world into which the lion was born.
“I remember Harold crying, saying daddy was going to whip him for not picking enough cotton,” the lion says of his dead brother, laughing. He casts his intravenous line like a fishing pole. “I think I’m getting a bite, baby,” he growls playfully to his lioness. “If it seems like I’m losing my mind, son, that’s because I am,” he says.
He served time in Arizona, planting onions with the shadow of gun bulls the only shade for miles. His white Irish flesh fried like bacon. Skin cancer seems such an unworthy foe to bring down a lion.
In a photograph the big, bare-chested cat leans on a picnic table, jail house tats winding down his thick arms. He smiles from under his goatee like a merry prankster.
At times he was less than noble, and he roared us into trembling. His voice the next day, though, was slushy with regret. He’d have hacked off one of his heavy paws to take it back.
Today I know the lion would have defended me against the devil, and he’d have given the devil all he could handle.
“Joey was tough,” a lawman of no small reckoning once told me. “A lot of boys around Pontotoc County back then thought they were tough. Joey was one of the toughest I ever saw,” he said.
We can’t all be priests and poets. Toughness is a virtue, too, especially among the poor. Without the tough watching over us, we, the weak, would be crushed by the cruel.
The lion lived much of his short life in dark, mean places, but he showed the world more kindness than it often showed him. At his worst he was gruff and as coarse as hog’s hair. At his best he stood guard over his family and said any predator had to come over him.
Hard living hobbled him, but the lion will breathe his last with children around him, and a woman who loves him even with his claws dulled and his mighty shoulders brought low to the ground.
The wrong the lion did he tried to make right. He served his time. He loved as fiercely as he roared in rage.
In the cool of the evening, the lion’s dreams are peaceful, filled with the whisperings of the Lord who awaits him in the tall grass of the plain. When the lion dies we’ll gather around his bed. We’ll marvel that God could fashion a creature so mighty and brave, so flawed yet so redeemed.

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