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‘I just want to talk about my brother’

I just want to talk about my brother. Mr. Charles Nix, the man who ‘discovered me,’ once began a column for the LaGrange Daily News with those words.

I say he ‘discovered me,’ with a laugh. What I mean is that he ran up onto Grandma and me one day broken down in her still-running 1956 Ford on the side of the Roanoke Road. We were headed out to see my Uncle Raymond. Mr. Nix not only stopped to help us and guided us to safety. But, as we talked, he said he’d arrange an interview for me with the LDN editor Ms. Andrea Lovejoy, once he found out I was ‘kind of a writer’ and was interested in writing a column. That was in 1997. You know the rest of the story.

When Grandma and I got to Uncle Raymond’s house just over the Alabama line, he told me he liked Charles Nix’s writing, and he added, “He had one column I’ll always remember. It began with, ‘I just want to talk about my brother.’”

I never forgot that nice little first line, either. And even though we’ve kind of gone around the world to get to it – which is very fitting in this case, as you will see – for today I just want to talk to you about my brother. I am honored to do this.

When I say ‘brother,’ I am not talking about my two Bowen brothers Tim and Wayne. I am talking about one of those brothers you don’t meet until three or four years after you’re born. Tim and Wayne have been my brothers since 1956. I didn’t meet Ryan Howell until, say, 1962 – a little before, maybe, or a tad later. I just have known him as long as I can remember.

Ryan lived in Birmingham almost all of his life. We would see each other when we were younger when we went up to Birmingham for their “Spring Meeting.”  The gospel meeting always ended on Easter Sunday every year. Mama would us buy us all new clothes and we would get all spruced up – or “High Karate’d” up – to the meeting to hear the eloquent Lynwood Smith, the greatest storytelling preacher to ever come along, preach over that weekend.

The Howell family included Ryan’s mom and dad and four girls: Melondy, Angie, Donna, and Janet – became a part of our lives early on through church gatherings. Early on, I’m sure I liked a couple of his sisters a lot better than I liked Ryan. You understand. When we were teenagers, Ryan, Coca-Cola Mike, and a bunch more of us all had good times when we would go to Roanoke for a singing school every summer. Years later – after Ryan and I found two girls who were misguided enough to marry us – Ryan and his new wife Sandy moved to Houston, where the amazin’ blonde and I were living, and together we all continued making our mark on the world.  For about a while we even attended the same little church of Christ on the north side of town – so, we really renewed that old friendship.

You have to know this other brother of mine, Ryan, and his wife. Ryan is the greatest storyteller ever — I mean, the kind that feels it would be a sin to leave out even the slightest detail in a story. To my knowledge, he never was guilty of that sin. I suppose I may have inherited a bit of Ryan’s longwindness myself, as you see here, but I can’t hold a candle to Ryan Howell on telling a story with absolute and complete detail. He told a story in vivid flying colors, laughing all alone, but that isn’t even all of it. Sandy, as vivacious as Ryan but far more lovely, to be sure, is a super good talker, too, and she will jump in and say, “Oh, Ryan, don’t forget the part about …”

When Ryan and Sandy showed up, you always made sure you had a Snickers bar in your pocket. His girls told me the other day how they remembered all of us in the living room laughing our heads off and telling stories. Those moments were magical. There was always Ryan – a big fella and as silver-headed as country singer Charlie Rich – and his wife Sandy, the Southern girl with the world’s biggest and best smile – and often best friends Coca-Cola Mike and Glory – all together. It was always right. It was always perfect.

Those were the days, my friend.

Ryan and Sandy lived in Houston near us long enough to have two girls – Lauren and Brittany – and then they decided to move back to Birmingham. There their baby girl Andrea came along. Their family was set, Ryan was back to his home church and to his parents and four sisters (that’s right, he has four sisters and three daughters), and he worked at Fed Ex until just a few years ago.

We and Ryan and Sandy stayed in touch all through the years – but not nearly enough to satisfy any of us – and had a full day together here in LaGrange just a year or so ago. Since that visit, Ryan’s health began to slip. It was a number of issues, and he spent several weeks in the hospital over the past month. He and I talked some while he was there, and he was in great spirits, as always. That was Ryan, of course. He was never any other way.

This past Monday morning I had just left our work in Oklahoma and was driving home when Marilyn called:

“Mike called. I have some bad news,” she said.

“Oh, no, not Ma Ma,” I said, with a deep sigh – thinking of Coca-Cola Mike’s ninety-eight-year-old mother in LaGrange.

“No,” she said, “It’s Ryan Howell. Ryan died last night.”

My heart dropped. I pulled over on the side of the road at the first exit and spent some quiet time with my brother.

This week, naturally, I just wanted to talk about my brother. But you know you can’t tell that story all at once. We’ll have to tell you the rest at the next column. What would you expect in a story about my good friend and brother Ryan Howell? You’d probably expect a long story with plenty of details, told in the most vivid, flying colors.

Ryan wouldn’t have it any other way.