low angle photo of bird flying across dark clouds

“Salt of the earth” is one of those phrases that doesn’t get used much anymore. It conjures up images of hard work,true toughness, integrity, dignity, respect, loyalty and courage.The phrase evokes memories of times past and what Australians were before we all got told what to think. No wonder the phrase is rarely used. There’s probably a committee beavering away somewhere to classify it as some form of “ism.”

I don’t care much what others think. I reckon the phrase salt of the earth is one of the highest accolades a real person can have bestowed upon them. When I think of my friends, Ray and Sharon Sloper, the phrase salt of the earth fits both of them like a glove.

You’d go a long way to meet another couple like them.

They’ve both been incredibly good to me and my family. They had no reason to be, other than that’s just the way they are. If scores were kept on favors owed, I’d be seriously in debit. Ray and Sharon don’t keep scores.

They’re doing it hard now. Sharon hasn’t been well for a while and Ray has been struck low by that most insidious of diseases. True to form they don’t complain. They just face each day as they always have and bravely stare down the dark clouds gathering on their horizon.

I haven’t seen them for a while but I’ve been aware that things haven’t been good. Distance and lock downs have made it hard to get back.

Last week, I finally caught up with them both.

Cancer is a cruel bastard of a thing. It is playing merry hell with my friend but it can’t break the essence of the man. His eyes still shine with interest and curiosity and his mind is as sharp as ever.

He tells me that the pain at night is horrendous and shrugs as if he was discussing how to change brake pads. We look at each other. I have so much to say, but words fail me. I want to hug him but don’t.

We find things to talk about. They are what Ray loves. Nature, life, family, friends and stories of times past. There are always stories and his eyes shine with genuine warmth as he relates them. He asks about my children. He has been a virtual uncle to all of them. I wish they were here but they are not. Life moves on. It’s a big world. Ray understands that. Still, I wish they were here.

The women are talking among themselves. Ray leans closer. True to form he doesn’t try to gild any lilies. The oncologist has told him that no more can be done. He holds my gaze and tells me that the next little while will be rough. He is matter of fact and it seems has already come to terms with what is ahead. I am simultaneously in awe of his courage and dismayed by what he is telling me.

I hate this.

It isn’t fair. Not by any measure. The man neither drinks nor smokes. What kind of perverse deity allows shit like this to happen?

There are no answers and I have very few words. I realize with sudden clarity that I love this man as I would an older brother. I am going to miss him more than I can possibly imagine. It takes considerable effort to keep my emotions in check.

He is tiring. It is time to go. He walks with us to the car and thanks us for coming. He means it from the bottom of his heart. We stand there in the late afternoon, chatting as we have so often, knowing full well that this may be the last time.

We shake hands. His grip is as vice like as ever. “Thank you,” he says again. It isn’t he who should be saying thanks. I owe him so much. He has lived an honorable life and I am all the better for being touched by it.

I have no way of saying these things.

I hope he knows what he means to us but am cursed with a man’s emotional palette. The words are out of my range.

I struggle to leave, but know that I must. My head is full of memories. Moments of kindness come roaring to life. Ray has been there when needed for what seems like forever. I remember long Sunday afternoon chats, copious piss taking, offers of help when none was asked for but very much appreciated, tracking European wasps along creek beds, warm smiles, gentleness hidden under a gruff exterior and above all integrity.

People like Ray and Sharon never attract much attention. Nor do they seek it. They go about their business and do the best they can. In the end, that’s all any of us can do. The ultimate measure for all of us is if the world is the better for us being in it.

Those who can claim to have made the world a better place are truly salt of the earth.

That is what Ray and Sharon have done in their own quiet way.

It is a privilege to know them both.

Footnote: I spent considerable time looking for a suitable photo of Ray. I’m not the greatest recorder of events. There should be photos. I can’t find any. The photo above reflects the underlying theme of strength and dignity in the face of darkness. It is nowhere near good enough but is the best I can do

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By Mark