Just last month, on Dec. 1, my two boys and I ate birthday cake with our neighbor, Mr. B., on the occasion of his 102nd birthday. His caretaker (a family friend of his actually) called us and said she was going to surprise him with a cake and invited us to join in. So my boys and I walked over and enjoyed a little celebratory cake with our dear friend. It was a small party, just us, as he was going to celebrate with his family the next day.
We’d only met him about 5 years ago. My son had gone door-to-door, offering to mow lawns and do yardwork as a summer job. That is how we came to know about Mr. B. Because he was homebound, we had no idea who lived in the house around the corner.
You never know what will result from knocking on someone’s door. It could have turned into a “no thank you”, or a door slam in the face. Or it could turn into more. It could possibly turn into a friendship.
And the latter is what happened. At 98, he was slowed down, but he was still cooking Sabbath supper for his family (his two children) who live in town. He was still living alone and maintaining much independence. He was even driving.
My son was hired on the spot to do some weed-pulling, which then eventually turned into mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or any other odd jobs that needed done. My son even rode with him the store to buy plants for his yard that first year. My son was just 12 and wasn’t driving yet.
For the past 5 years, though, it wasn’t the yard work that kept my son mostly (and occasionally myself) going to see Mr. B. It was Mr. B. himself. He was always kind and gracious and so very appreciative anytime we came for a visit. He loved having company. He was mostly alone at home, and occupied his time by reading books. Mr. B was an avid reader, and always had a stack of books near him. He read the newspaper and loved talking about politics. But he was also full of stories about his own life—and I know there were many we did not have the joy and privilege of hearing. I enjoyed his conversation, his stories, his knowledge of history, and his rants on the current state of politics. We did not have the same religion nor did we always agree on politics. But one thing Mr. B taught my son (and exemplified) was to always listen to the other person, listen to the other side; everyone has dignity and a voice and is worth listening to.
I invited him to my house a few years ago, when he was still able to get out for a short visit, and though the visit was very brief before he needed to return home, it was delightful to have him visit. I made fried rice and he enjoyed it so much, he wanted the recipe. He ended up making fried rice for his family’s Sabbath meals on Friday nights! It was near Christmas time when he visited, and he enjoyed seeing the Christmas tree. This past year, though, his health had declined and he had slowed down to the point that he needed a caretaker during the night and one during the day and he was not able to get out at all. His son-in-law would come for part of the day, as well as visits from his son or daughter.
My son received a call on Friday night from Mr. B’s caretaker, who knew us and knew we’d like to know, that Mr. B had been in the hospital this past week. He had a broken hip, but then had an aneurysm in his stomach. We were told by his caretaker that “grandpa” was not going to be coming home anymore and was being moved in the morning into hospice care. (She called him “grandpa” because she is best friends with his granddaughter.)
Late Saturday morning, we drove across town to see him, through a lightly falling snow and side roads still slippery and covered in snowy patches. We passed several accidents on the way, mostly near ramps where cars skidded off the road.
When we arrived, we were told that he had just been settled into his room and was sleeping. Because the transfer from the hospital and via the ambulance and into the hospice care facility had been rough and painful, he was very sleepy from the pain medication he had been given. He spent most of our short visit sleeping. He looked pale, he was tired, but his mind was still sharp and keen and aware of who we were.
He did wake up, and recognize us and thank us for visiting. Our conversation was very brief, as he was fighting off sleep and drifting away, so we did not stay very long. We asked him if we could pray and he said yes. So we prayed with him, and for him, and we aren’t entirely sure if he heard all of it. We sat down in the room silently before we left, not knowing what else to do, but each thinking silent thoughts, uttering silent prayers. After a few minutes spent in the room, we walked over to him to say goodbye; he opened his eyes when he said goodbye and also spoke to us, once again thanking us for visiting him but drifting off to sleep again very quickly.
We found out today (Sunday) that he had passed away last night. I was very thankful we had been able to see him yesterday. I feel a sense of loss and sadness; a soul has left this earth and is on the other side of this existence. A dear soul, a friend, someone who crossed our path near the end of his life here on earth is no longer here. It’s so strange. Life will not be the same for his children (who are in their 70s and 80s) and it will not be the same for the others of us who knew him. I didn’t know him well, but knowing him, my life was richer. And my son, who was close to him, visiting him regularly, loved him and will miss him. It was hard to see him at the end, in pain and near death. We prayed for him regularly, and these prayers were always initiated by my son.
I have a hole in my heart today, and I do not regret any time spent in conversation with this dear old neighbor I had the privilege to know. It will be a new thing, walking down the street, knowing that house will be empty, knowing he is no longer there.
I don’t know death very well. I haven’t had anyone close to me die; only a few people I did not know very well. I feel the pain and sadness of losing a friend and a neighbor, and I feel the phantom of more death that I know is yet to come and touch my life.
I will miss you, Mr. B. Thank you for being kind to my son and talking to him. Thank you for being a friend, for being kind, for your gracious welcome and your interesting conversation. I am thankful to have known you. I wish I had met you much, much sooner and learned more from you, and had heard more of your stories, but I am very thankful to have met you during your last years on earth, during these last few years.