Each day is a colorless fade to the next early black and white morning which begins and ends the same. It’s 4am and through our common wall, I can hear his TV, teapot and sometimes, the unsure shuffle of his slippers on a path to the darkened front door he opens to again curse the late paperboy. An occasional cough punctuates the silence of the otherwise dirty, furry apartment where with two old cats, he’s lived eight years, and died one and a half.
He waits for no one but the twice weekly nurse with a key and a bag of useless treatments, because his condition is incurable. Lucy passed right there in the living room in a cold steel hospital bed he wanted to keep, if not only for a tangible but morbid memory of their final moment together last summer when he kissed her forehead and said goodbye to fifty-eight wonderful years and hello to this mere existence without her.
Neither poor nor rich, he’s now not much of anything but the shell of a man and husband trying to find himself and any purpose in a weathered, withered 89 year old body whose expiration date is long overdue. And this isn’t my own summation, it is his as he sits in the easy chair across from me, holding his frail little body, arms crossed, lying in repose, waiting for something inside to change. The depression is killing him slowly, deliberately and with a pain no longer quenched by tears or talking. He is a silent, dying man.
I saw her the day before she passed in their living room as a courtesy mostly. I’d been their closest neighbor with a common wall for many years and when I’d heard of the accident, I sent flowers, made food and cards for a couple weeks until she was gone. Nice lady. Very simple, Midwest Lutheran couple for 58 years, I heard them shuffle past my front door together sometimes on the way to church or the casino where it happened. She’d fallen her final fall which ultimately brought her to the end of her life and his.
I used to help him bring in the few bags of groceries around the first of the month but have since stopped at the door for the stench of the cats he loves, and who are as old and matted as he. The bending needed for a litter change is something he can muster only a couple times monthly. But he’s used to the smell. He’s used to a lot of things. But not used to being as lonely as he is without her.
I’ve cajoled him a couple times during our early morning conversations and if he could find it again, I’m pretty sure his laugh would be contagious.
“Don, do you love someone?” he asked me.
“Well, I have my three kids and my dog and they’re pretty special to me, but if you’re asking if I have a deeper love in my life like you had in Lucy, no. Maybe someday.”
While I was trying hard to get as used to the smell of the catbox as he, I listened to his autobiography of the couple who lived next door and the countless moments of their countless memories together for the good part of an hour. When we parted for me to get home to shower for work, I left convinced that my “maybe someday” love–if ever–was unlikely to be as incredibly beautiful as theirs. It was a “Notebook” kind of love and as I stood there in the shower, the hot water mixed with my tears and I think for the first time in my life, I finally tasted the salty love explained to me by a salty 89 year old man.
Work was rough. All day long, I thought about the hour in his living room that morning and the epiphany he’d given me. Arriving home, I hugged my dog harder and I texted my three kids to say I love you before bed, and went to sleep.
And this morning, I woke very early as I always do. And through the steam of my coffee on the patio at 4am, I watched his living room light turn on and heard his front door open as he cursed the paperboy once again, and knew we were both next door, thinking about love. And Lucy.
And through the wall, the teapot screamed.
We could have said goodbye,
Lost track of one another
And gone on with our own
But we couldn’t.
We could have lived the lie
That said it was done and over
And time heals all things
But it doesn’t.
We could have asked why
We didn’t make it or fake it
All these years apart
But we didn’t.
We had so much yet never touched
The friend we called our lover.
Now time has passed and we might last
Enough to soon discover…
That goodbye isn’t all there is
When things just don’t work out.
We’ve shared too much and now as such
We’ve learned what love’s about.
I’m glad we took the time today
To talk it through, make it okay
And be the friends that were in our stars
Closer now, and not so far.
I wonder if this will be the last time I flip her calendar, change her sheets or pull the weeds from her garden. Buy her groceries, get her lunch, or pay her back for all she’s been to me. Run her errands, walk at her side, or hold her hand during one of her spells. I’ll miss playing my jokes on her, winning her smiles, and losing every hand of gin. But the day will soon come when I empty her closets, filled with fond memories and a deep void for all the days I remain. But as I laugh through the tears and chuckle at the moments, I will always smile because while something is now missing, nothing is ever lost.
“Size 7 if you can, but really, anything will do.”
Noticeably ashamed and even more embarrassed about the ask, she walked out with the same uneven pain, now made a little worse that her secret had been discovered.
I hope I never have to ask a stranger for a newer pair of old shoes.
Tattered by the years and scissor trimmed around the flattened soles, she still brushed them each morning and treated them like the blessings they were for carrying her through the day. Her only pair for as long as she can remember, I had done the unthinkable and asked if they were comfortable, knowing well enough they were now so worn, they were probably permanently injuring her feet and needed replaced with money from someone else.
But humility. A woman from the south learns early on the decorum of it. You always meet the needs of others and never ask for yourself. I’d met with her a few times and each visit hurt me to see her walk like that. She had no money for clothing or shoes. She was budgeting just enough to keep the lights on and some food in the pantry. So I had to ask the question. If not for her, to relieve my own pain.
But compassion. A man in the business of helping old southern women past their humilities and into a new pair of shoes was worth breaking the southern Georgia rules she’d lived with most of her 89 years.
“Size 7 it is, with a low heel and a sturdy new sole,” I told her. “You need say no more, and nobody else will know. We will never speak of this again, okay?” I assured her and she agreed with a nod.
I never shopped for women’s shoes before. A couple times with my Mom, sure, but this excursion was a secret mission to find a fit and style that would last an old woman the rest of her years and in which she would very likely be buried. That thought alone made the trip to the store on a Friday morning an emotional one.
I could have shopped Goodwill for a bargain, but this pair was to be an investment that comes in a new box stuffed with the clean white tissue and plastic wrap intact upon delivery for her to open and waft the new leather scent which she would do for at least an hour before trying them on.
She’d lived a hard life. Worked for 60 years at the same job, probably in those same shoes, and retired on a social security income that barely paid her monthly rent and left $123 for everything else. But she always said she was doing fine and was in no need until I’d spied the pair of shoes that her withered ankles were poured into and the gait that wasn’t because she was old, but because she was prideful and in pain.
Black goes with everything. Well stitched, sturdy thick soled like waitresses wear when they’re on their feet for an entire shift, and $62.30 with tax after the coupon, it was less than the cost of a single lunch for two and much more satisfying.
I showed up at her door unannounced, hung the bag on the handle and went to work.
When I see her again, I will say nothing of the shoes, just as I had promised.
A woman of her word, I expect she will do the same.
Some secrets are best kept and shared in silence, and then only with a few tears. Because dignity is still a virtue.