"Do you think Ray will be here?" My wife Clare asked. "You know he's got a thing about his face."
"He'll be here," I said confidently, although, honestly, I wasn't too sure. But, to make my point, I added, "He adores Blue."
Which was true. My daughter was having her second birthday, the first one where we didn't have to Zoom. She was part of that generation that is now and forever going to be known as the Covid Kids; children born in the year after the pandemic began. Thanks to the vaccine, social distancing was a thing of the past and Clare and I were looking forward to a small gathering at our tiny home in the hills above Duluth.
Ray was my best friend. The guy who'd save me and my dad from an attack by a momma bear nearly twenty-five years ago. He took on the bear while we ran, dad dragging me along as we crashed through the trees and down the steep cliffs off the Superior Hiking Trail. Fortunately, we met a game warden who was able to take over from there. In fact, Susan Bessimer's quick action not only saved Ray's life but set the course of my life as well. I'm now a game warden with the Minnsota DNR. I have been for ten years and I love it.
Dad and I became friends with Ray, driving up from the cities to visit with him while he recovered in the hospital in Duluth. It was a long process for him. The bear had pretty much eaten him alive. The doctors gave him little chance, but Doctor Patel, a wonderfully skilled and kind doctor, worked with Ray and helped bring him back not only physically but emotionally. She and Ray became good friends until she drowned a few years ago in a springtime kayaking incident in the frigid waters of Lake Superior near Agate Beach.
Ray was a loner, having fled to Canada in 1970 to escape the draft for the Vietnam War. His best friend enlisted and was killed in 1971 and Ray never got over it. He came back to the states in 1977 on the strength of President Carter's pardon for those went to Canada, and settled in Grand Marais just south of the border. He began working at Nimenen's Hardware and still works there a few hours a week. The owner Klaus Nimenen lost his son to the war and sort of adopted Ray. Now his daughter and her son run the place. Ray's got a home for life there.
Dad and I and Ray bonded over our love of the outdoors. We went hiking on the Superior Trail every chance we got. Ray was an excellent birder; he could identify them by their song and he enjoyed teaching Dad and I about the habits of the black backed woodpecker and the Merlin's falcon along with nearly a hundred other species found in the northern reaches of the state. He was fun to be around.
His face didn't bother Dad and me probably because we were used to it, but man let me tell you, if you weren't ... Well, let me just say, it could be a real shock. The bear had essentially chewed it all off. Reconstructive surgery took over two years and the end result was that Ray's nose and lips and most of his chin were gone. His mouth a round hole about the size of a silver dollar. His face was a smooth mask due to all the plastic surgery. "Kind of like a soccer ball," he sometimes joked. He still had one ear, though, and miraculously he still had his eyes.
He's told me more than once, "Nathan, let me tell you, my boy. If that momma bear had blinded me, I don't know what I would have done." He said it tongue in cheek. He had a pretty good sense of humor. After all, after the attack they had to amputate his left hand. And to this day he still walks with a limp.
I was looking forward to seeing him for Blue's birthday and had just talked to him on the phone the day before. "You're coming, right? Blue would love to see you."
Through zooming the two of them had gotten to know one another. Ray would send toys and we'd hold them up and show her to him on the monitor when she opened the package. It was fun.
But Ray had a thing about showing his face to her. He wouldn't do it. Instead, he wore his Covid face mask, saying, "I don't want to scare the little kid."
"Ray," I told him, "You don't have to do that. She could care less."
"No. My mind is made up."
And it was, too. Ray could be obstinate. I suppose that's why he survived that bear attack. Nevertheless, I was still looking forward to seeing him and was in the kitchen stirring up some chili, a favorite of Ray's, when from the front room Clare looked out the window and called out, "Ray's here." She was holding Blue. "Look," she said to our daughter, "Your uncle Ray is here."
I set the spoon down, wiped my hands off and hurried to join her. He'd driven his old Chevy pickup down from the little apartment he'd lived in for almost fifty years. I smiled. So did Clare. It was going to be good to see him.
"Let go greet him," I said.
Clare gave me Blue. "You two go. I'll wait. Give you three your time."
I smiled at her. "Thanks." She knew what I was going to do.
I went outside into the bright sunshine. It was the first week in April and apple blossoms were blooming and their scent was a reminder that life was going to go on no matter what, and that very thought made me glad to not only be alive but also to have Clare and Blue and Ray in my life.
Ray sat in the cab, both hands on the wheel, looking straight ahead. He used to have long hair. He used to have an awesome beard. He used to have human face. Now he was bald and hairless and looked weird. I didn't mind at all. I loved the guy.
I came up to the truck and he turned to me. He was wearing his Covid face mask and dressed in a clean blue flannel shirt. He was wearing thick framed glasses because his eyesight wasn't the best anymore. But he was still my best friend.
"Ray!" I greeted him, "Glad you could make it." I wanted to hug him but he sat stiffly, so I gave him a bro' grip on his shoulder as a sign of affection.
He immediately loosened up, turned to me and tipped his baseball cap and smiled as only a guy who has basically no mouth can smile. It warmed my heart. "Hi," he said. "Good to see you, too."
It was hard for him to speak. His voice was muffled, like his mouth was filled with marshmallows.
I held up Blue. "Blue, look who's here for your birthday. It's your uncle Ray."
Blue peered into the cab. Ray looked back. She recognized him immediately. "Ray!" She exclaimed and started jiggling around in my arms.
"Take your mask off Ray. Let her really see you."
He shook his head, "No."
"Come on. Don't worry. She won't care. You're family."
Ray was quiet, watching little Blue. Who knew what was going through his mind? He'd been a loner his whole life. My dad and I were the closest he'd ever been to people. Well, Dad had died ten years earlier. Now it was just me. And Clare and Blue.
He made his decision. He openned the door to the truck and stepped out and walked around the back. We met him at the tailgate. He took off his face and tossed it in the back. Blue reached out her arms for him and I gave her to him.
"Ray!" She smiled as her took her in his arms.
"Hi there, little one," he said. "I'm your Uncle Ray."
There were tears in his eyes. Tears of joy.
"Hi," Blue said. And she kissed him, right where his cheek would have been.