When you're a child, every birthday is a big event, a milestone. For most adults, the only birthdays that carry a similar weight are the 10-year markers: 30, 40, 50, etc.
But there's one non-decennial adult birthday of equal significance: 65, your official graduation from middle to old age. Party time, right?
Keenan had made it there, a dubious achievement but better than the alternative, he figured. To celebrate, he was meeting up with two old friends for a weekend of fun and nostalgic recollection. His pals were driving up from New Jersey, Keenan's childhood home, and the plan was to rendezvous at the Topnotch Resort in Stowe, a spiffy hotel that lives up to its name.
On the appointed Saturday morning, I pulled up to Keenan's modest home in the New North End to find him waiting with a small suitcase in hand and a smile on his face. With his pale skin and still-auburn hair, eyebrows and beard, Keenan is a ginger through and through — a term some consider derogatory, but one he wears with pride as a physical connection to his Irish roots. Taking in his limpid aquamarine eyes, I thought, If this guy lost about two feet of height and dressed in the traditional getup, he could pass for a leprechaun.
"How's your wife doing?" I asked as we got under way, figuring first things first. He had told me that she was going to drive him to Stowe in the family car but had taken ill.
"Thanks for asking, Jernigan," he replied. "Yeah, she's still miserable with this stomach thing. I told her I would stay home to take care of her, but she said absolutely not. So, I get to ride with you."
"And that's a good thing?" I said, chuckling.
"Well, we'll find out."
Keenan and I have known each other for years because he works the door at the main lobby of the UVM Medical Center. My job takes me through there a couple times a week, so we often interact. I believe he manages the team of folks who do their best to keep the lanes open for the dozens, if not hundreds, of people dropping off and picking up daily.
In this hectic environment, he goes about his work in a no-nonsense yet caring fashion, an approach I admire and hope to emulate in my own work. Though there's rarely time to exchange but a few words, I have always enjoyed our interactions. And this is what made the ride to Stowe special for me: the opportunity to spend an unrushed hour chatting with the man.
"How'd you end up in Vermont anyway?" I asked him as we gained the highway. "I know you're from Jersey, but what got ya up here?"
"Well, for years — gosh, like 20 — I was a caddy and groundskeeper at a golf club not far from where I grew up. I actually liked the job but always had the sense that something was missing from my life. And then a good friend of mine died, and it hit me hard. This was my wake-up call.
"In short order, I quit my job, packed up and stored my stuff, and took off on an extended European vacation — a trip I always wanted to take but kept putting off. As you could imagine, I spent a lot of this time away reflecting on my life. When I got back, I moved up to Vermont, a place I always liked from afar."
"I can relate," I said. "Like you, I grew up intrigued with Vermont. And moving up here as a young man granted me some measure of redemption, or maybe the word is salvation. I know that sounds overblown, but I swear that's what it felt like."
We continued to chat amiably as we reached the Stowe exit and steered north on Route 100. We found ourselves sharing stories of our early years, a typical and comforting conversational topic for men our age. I'm happy to say we (mostly) avoided the slide into fuddy-duddyism — the illusion that everything is worse today than it was in your youth. A reliable sign of this peril is any sentence beginning with, "When I was a kid..."
When we reached Stowe's lower village, I took the shortcut onto the Moscow Road. As our conversation circled back to his job, I began to notice just how soft-spoken and humble Keenan was. This really came to the fore when I asked him whether working at the hospital fulfills him in a way that was lacking back at the golf course in New Jersey.
"I got to say it does," Keenan said quietly. "It's an opportunity to actually do some good, which is important to me. Many of the folks I deal with every day are facing life-altering health challenges, and they arrive at the hospital feeling scared and vulnerable. I do my best to make them feel like they're going to be taken care of, that they're not alone."
I'd witnessed the "Keenan Effect" countless times, often with my own customers. He'll come to the passenger door, open it and ask if they need any assistance. The notable thing to me is the manner in which he speaks in that crucial moment: never by rote; he has this way of instantly tuning in to and relating to each person individually. One person might need a friendly and distracting joke; another might require the most delicate empathy and compassion. Whatever it is, Keenan seems to bring it intuitively, along with whatever gentle physical help is called for.
"I know exactly what you're talking about," I said. "Keenan, that's a noble calling, man. And I know you rarely get acknowledged for it."
"Well, thanks, but that's not why I do it. But it is nice, I've got to say, when after losing a loved one, a family member gives me feedback that it always meant a lot when I was there to greet them at the door. A patient once told me that when she would see me standing there, she knew everything was going to be all right."
I realized that when my turn comes — and it comes for every one of us eventually — Keenan is the person I would want to see me through the door.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.