‘Lean on Me’ got me through tough times

Life is a cascade of connections. A word. A name. A song. A clipping I’ve retrieved from my “someday” file hands me these: The word: “obituary.” The name: Bill Withers. The song: “Lean on Me.”
It was the early ‘70s. My husband and I had separated. I worried about much, but my newspaper job kept me grounded. I had many interesting assignments; one of the best was to cover the first meeting of faculty hires for a new university — a branch of the Illinois system that was just opening in our part of suburban Chicago. Most of them were tentative, very quiet in this very strained situation. But one man was different: outspoken, funny, tossing humorous insults toward everyone. He took me back to high school, so I spoke to him directly: “I know the game you’re playing,” I said. “We used to call it ‘slipping!’ And I bet I’m better at it than you!”
On that strange start, Mel and I built a special friendship. His brash behavior was a protective coat worn to hide his fears. And he had many of them in beginning this new and different life, as did I in entering my own very new and different life. So, I too wore a coat of protection, but we were able to shed these imaginary garments when we were together — always in troubled times, when either of us needed the support of an understanding friend.
Here’s how it worked: One of us, whenever feeling that need, would call the other, and we’d set a time for an evening meeting, always in the same dark local restaurant with quiet, high-backed booths, each equipped with its own private “jukebox.” We’d get a dollar’s worth of dimes, feed them into the slot, and cry together as we listened — 10 times over — to “Lean on Me.” Do you know it?
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on”
No, we were not lovers; we were more: unfailing sources of strength for each other.
Mel was the brash Jewish director of the university’s theater program. He challenged me to go onstage, something I’d never done before (and have never done again!). I was terrified but carried it off, and I still treasure the full page my paper gave me afterward: On the top half, I wrote about “On Being in a Play and Loving It”; on the bottom half, our reviewer wrote about “On Seeing That Play and Loving It.”
Mel didn’t stay too long in this position; after he left for humanitarian work in Guatemala, we lost touch completely. But “Lean on Me” had built strength in both of us; our need for the song was gone. Before his departure, Mel gave me a poem he’d written, asking me to read it at his funeral — whenever that might be. It’s a haunting piece reflecting on how all the people at that time would be remembering the same man, but it would have been a very different man for each of them…
Even today, I don’t know if Mel is alive or dead, so I can’t even observe a yahrzeit. but I still have his poem. It’s now time to “feminize” it and then hand it off to someone else for future use. Did he need, and find, another “someone to lean on” in his new life? I was incredibly lucky to take more strength from my second marriage, in which Fred and I were always able to lean on each other; we were friends working together to carry on, never needing prearranged meetings for listening to a special song to us get us through our own troubled times. And yet, as almost five decades have passed, with all that’s happened over so many years, “Lean on Me” remains my perpetual echo. Bill Withers died this year, but for me, his song will live forever…

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