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The first thing I thought to do last week when my cousin died was get on my lawn mower.

I knew, if he could, that’s what he’d be doing. The man loved to mow.

We love to tell the story in my family about the unseasonably warm Christmas Day when he convinced himself the balmy spell had fooled his grass into a growth spurt. 

He couldn’t enjoy the holiday until he’d fired up his mower and — in a shirt, tie and dress shoes — whipped that yard into shape.

Johnny Sells was a man of easy contentment. He didn’t gorge himself on pleasure. 

He was immensely satisfied with life as it came to him.

He bought two vehicles over the past 38 years, both Toyota pickups. The first he sold when the odometer topped 375,000 miles, and he fretted that he got rid of it too soon. 

The second is sitting in his driveway today, having given him 20 years and more than 400,000 miles of service.

He ate every lunch at the Subway in town. Watched just two TV stations — Fox News and The Weather Channel. Went to church twice a week. Worshiped his grandchildren.

His was an enviable simplicity. Except for four years in the Air Force, he lived always on the Kentucky tobacco farm where he was born and raised, in sight of the homes of his grandmother, parents and brother. He wanted his daughter to grow up the same way he did, surrounded by a big and loving family.

Johnny had the wisdom to know he had it made. His life was just right the way it was. He fought as hard to keep that life as cancer did to take it away.

In a year in which death has been relentless, this Memorial Day is particularly raw. Johnny’s death feels like a gratuitous exclamation point.

He was my older brother, my best friend, my role model, my connection to home. He taught me to shave, to spike tobacco stalks without running my hand through, and to iron a crisp crease in my trousers.

As a kid, he always gave into my pleading to ride to town with him on Saturday night. He’d leave me on a stool in the pool hall and collect me after he was finished with courting. 

It was a fine perch for learning the things a boy craves to know.

Johnny was the finest person I ever knew. He treated everyone with the same dignity. He loaned money he couldn’t spare, knowing it would never be repaid. He never had an enemy, that anyone I know can name.

He wasn’t perfect. He drove too slowly. Fell asleep at inappropriate times. And if you liked variety in dining, you were out of luck with him.

His faith was not compartmentalized. He lived by its rule book. He didn’t drink, never complained, wouldn’t work on Sunday, and he loved his neighbors.

Losing the ones who have always been there to help you through loss leaves a unique void. 

I’ll ache for his steady presence the rest of my life.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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