Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

In a world rife with helplessness, an old friend comes to mind. His memory provides one answer to the question of life’s meaning in a moment suggestive of a heartless and strange cosmic order.

You would not think Joe Pribyl a remarkable man upon first acquaintance.

Some people possess an arresting presence. Joe did not. A stocky man, a bit under average height, he had graying hair and lacked whatever grace or style makes some people appear to be wearing a custom-made suit instead of a borrowed wardrobe.

My friend’s facial features didn’t betray high distinction either, except perhaps for deep vertical creases and old acne scars, of which Joe possessed more than a few. Yet it did convey warmth and approachability, more appreciable than any sculptural handsomeness.

At the start, I thought his everyman quality diminished him. Before the end of his life, however, I realized the inseparability of his nature and goodness from the human community.

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

Joe was a man of faith, admired by a faithless soul like me. Roman Catholic from start to finish, living his Sunday-service-beliefs every day. His grace came not from appearance, but kindness toward others, from waitresses to total strangers. The essence of his being was on display, fully himself, the rare unselfconscious human with nothing hidden.

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

For years this therapist and his wife, Mary, also a psychologist in the practice they shared, organized a mission to Central America. The well-matched couple brought books to educate the sea of dispossessed, illiterate, and impoverished brown youngsters most of us don’t consider.

Doctor Pribyl did not consign a remedy for the world’s ills to someone else.

Brave enough to display tears, my friend never wept for himself, but others. Yet Joe was one of the few people I ever met who was content.

The healer displayed remarkable equanimity and courage in dealing with the near-death experience of a heart attack in a foreign and ill-equipped land. Later cancer stalked him, hanging around, as it sometimes does, never quite vanishing. Joe integrated the latter disease into the fabric of his existence as a natural event, not a matter of personal unfairness or rage.

On display was all the towering distinction my friend’s physicality lacked, but only if you focused hard, long, and understood him well.

Death came, a bigger than life opponent with an undefeated record, but not before Joe tricked the grim reaper into allowing additional time for attention to his patients, the woman he loved, the family dearest to him, and his lucky friends. I’ve never witnessed a better magic act.

In the overtime, extra-time of Joe’s life, I talked with him about my new grandson, almost two-years-old when the therapist passed. Grandparents wonder what the future holds for the little ones, who they will become.

I’m sorry Joe isn’t around to represent what one man can be, can do. If my grandsons were older and Joe still alive, I might point to him and say, “Look, look at this fine person. Look beyond appearances. This is a man. My friend is what a man should try to be.

This gentile soul, dead almost two years and a confidant for half my life, was a quiet fellow with an easy laugh. He didn’t come to impress you. While some people converse to be heard, he came to know you. There was little judgment in him.

His self-effacing way, at first, made me think nothing of his offer of friendship. Before the end, I recognized him as one of the great gifts of my life.

Thinking about Joe this morning, I reflected on the question with which I began this essay.

How do we persuade ourselves of a just deity in the face of all the world’s casualties? I imagined myself, a non-believer, asked to defend God in a criminal proceeding.

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

First, the prosecutor made his case, piling up the innumerable instances of tragedy, natural and human. Of disease and murder, duplicity, betrayal, racism, slavery, and wartime. Of geological catastrophes sweeping the multitudes away, Jehovah’s Old Testament, self-created flood included.

The lawyer went on for hours and even cut short the presentation, convinced his case irrefutable. I doubted my argument in God’s defense: Joe’s life as an example of God’s best work, best man.

My turn came, the Lord’s defender. I told stories about my friend, including much of what you now know. I didn’t go on for long.

The verdict came from the bench, not a jury. The female presiding wore a blindfold, as Justice is supposed to. She gripped the scales in her right hand, on one side piled high with the prosecutor’s evidence.

On the other sat Joe, since no graven images or likenesses of the Almighty are allowed us. My friend’s figure lay in the shadow of the towering count of accusations against the God of his belief. The adjudicator would soon release the balance she maintained, allowing the evidence to determine the outcome.

A courtroom full of eyes were on the apparatus, waiting for its pivot, though I couldn’t watch. I’m told for a moment nothing happened, then the scales of justice shuddered and a grinding, terrifying sound came out of nowhere.

I looked up. One side plunged.

I cannot tell you how I knew, but beneath her blindfold, I’m certain Lady Justice was winking at me.

Looking For Someone to Take Care of Us

I woke up in tears: torrential, engulfing, uncontrollable. I was flailing and alone — oh, so desperately heartbroken and alone. My mother was dead. It was the worst moment of my life and remains so to this day; even worse than when she actually died.

I was having a nightmare. Sitting up in bed, daylight snatched me from the kidnap of bad dreams. The sleep-induced catastrophe that bound my psyche disintegrated. And what followed was a sense of gratitude and relief that was equally unique in my experience. I was a school-aged boy, old enough to know about death; old enough to know that it meant never again being with the deceased, never having the guidance, comfort, and security only a parent provides.

What does one do in these moments when something awful and beyond our control is in the room with us — inescapable, hovering, mocking — towering over us and burrowing inside of us? What can provide comfort when a parachute is not in reach and the emptiness in our stomach tells us that we are falling from a great height; when we are drowning and there is no Houdini to help us escape the watery prison filled with our tears and our terror?

I dare say that some of us pray or feel like praying, even if we don’t believe in God. We scramble for something that will provide security. We look for someone to take care of us, an entity bigger and stronger who will make it all better. The battlefield tells a version of the story, where badly wounded, fetal-positioned soldiers cry out for their mothers.

This sense of impotence doesn’t require a situation that involves life and death. I have heard professional musicians tell me that they have more anxiety when their students perform in an important recital than when they perform themselves, fearing the worst will happen. They feel the lack of control, the troubling absence of direct influence on events; the sense of being up a creek without a paddle. If things go badly there is nothing that they can do. They can only watch the slow-motion, life-passing-before-your-eyes unraveling of things until the performance ends.

We feel this with our children, too. A child’s suffering, especially when the world treats him unfairly, can insinuate the same feeling of helplessness in the parent. We are taken hostage, as Francis Bacon said, by the misfortune of those we love. Better it should happen to us than to them.

Many of us are drawn to those who recreate the small child’s impression of parental, god-like omnipotence. These are the people who will “be there” for us in a pinch. I’ve always thought that Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was popular more for the rock-solid sense of reliance he inspired than for the particulars of his political philosophy or accomplishments. He seemed bigger than life and able to sooth all doubts about our national future. With him in charge, one didn’t have to worry. No matter the storm, he would bring the ship of state safely to port.

How badly do we want someone to care for us, to protect us, to hold us in the palm of his hand? Surely, this is the appeal of Psalm 91:4 of the Hebrew Bible, where God is described as someone who will “cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…”

What happens, though, when the gods seem to be turning away from our misfortune or unhappiness, or worse, creating it? Greek myth tells us that Achilles’s immortal mother Thetis held her child by the ankle as she dipped him in the river Styx, thus making him invulnerable except for the place where she grabbed him (his Achilles heel, which the magical water did not touch). Achilles’s father was a mortal, which meant that their son would eventually perish without special attention from his mother. Yet she failed to dip him a second time to cover the baby’s vulnerable ankle.

The story has been told that a group of prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz went so far as to indict God, although many, many doubtless did so privately and alone. A court proceeding of sorts ensued, complete with judge, prosecutor, and defense. Ellie Wiesel, 83-year-old Nobel Laureate, author, and survivor of that place says that he witnessed a small number of inmates playing out this “trial” of God: “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something.’ Then we went to pray.”

“Then we went to pray.” We do so need a god-like figure, a father, a mother, a protector, don’t we? Even a god who has been “convicted;” even a parent who is less than perfect, as all parents are. As the old Gershwin song tells us, we want “someone to watch over me.”

There’s a saying old, says that love is blind
Still we’re often told, “seek and ye shall find”
So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind

Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet
He’s the big affair I cannot forget
Only man I ever think of with regret

I’d like to add his initial to my monogram
Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb?

There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see
I hope that he, turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could, always be good
To one who’ll watch over me

Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me

Someone to watch over me

The top photo is a Pakastani Child Sits in His Father’s Arms aboard a U.S. Navy Helicopter, where his mother and father are being airlifted for medical treatment following the October 8, 2005 earthquake. Next,Yoeman 1st Class David Honegger Shows Pictures to a Ghanaian Child. Finally, Mother and Child by Henry Essenhigh Corke. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.