When I first came to know them in their eighties, I thought it was humorous of God to place us here so near them in proximity. An aging couple with no children and a bustling family with an over abundance of children. Because of a financial need, they had put for sale, and we had bought, a small section of property pretty well in the center of the land he was born on, which his parents and grandparents had farmed before him.
They welcomed us and we grew fond of one another. Our family helping here and there when needed with the farm chores that were beginning to be too much for them to handle alone, and they encircling us into their tiny family, which I imagine they never imagined would include children at this stage of life.
For the past few months I had been noticing he was slowing down, gradually becoming thinner, more and more frail. That didn’t stop him from his daily chores, but I worried over him extra.
I began to imagine, in a sort of nightmarish daydream, what I would do if I saw him collapse while out feeding the donkeys or goats. In my mind, I would see myself running to him and cradling his head in my lap while comforting him and calling for his wife.
I reminded the children often that they should go over to visit and talk because one of these days, maybe sooner than later, we wouldn’t have him with us any longer. I kept an eye out for him each day.
He stopped by to visit last week. I saw again how his arms and legs were thinner than the last time we had talked. We stayed there chatting together in the light breeze with the sunlight dancing through the leaves over our heads. We talked about the rain and the news and his knowledge of Morse code. After a moment of silence, we both knew we had run out of trivial things to say. A bird broke our unease with her short, sweet song and we looked at each other, that rare look right in the eyes of another that is looking the same way at you, and we both smiled.
I could feel the thin, thin veil between now and eternity was wearing away before us, like your grandmother’s flour sack dish cloth so worn and threadbare that the shadows of the trees can be seen through it when held up to the window. All at once I felt my eyes turn moist and there was an aching in my throat. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and hug him tight and tell him I loved him.
At the last second, I kept myself from it for fear that he would think it an odd thing to do. After all, I was nothing more than a neighbor and this was no special occasion. At least that either of us knew.
Eight days later, as I was finishing up the preparations for dinner, I answered a phone call to hear his wife telling me in a trembling voice that she thought he had suffered a heart attack.
I dropped the spoon I was holding, threw on my boots in a flash, and flew through the rain and mud to their back door. I asked where he was and she motioned to the bedroom. When I got to him he was slumped over, like a rag doll form of himself. I knelt down beside him and gently shook him and called his name. I could feel his warmth, but he never responded.
911 had been called and they began CPR when they arrived. There was a flurry of activity and questions and tears. His wife went over the days events and sobbed about becoming angry with him for refusing to eat. She wondered what she would do about making important decisions. He made all the important decisions. He always knew what to do.
The paramedics soon told us there was nothing more they could do. He was gone. More tears. The funeral home was called. The sheriff came to take a statement.
Through tears I asked if I could say goodbye before he was taken away. The paramedics stood aside respectfully and I knelt down once more. This time I did what I had regretted not doing a few days before. I smoothed his hair with my hand and kissed his barely warm forehead. I said, “I love you, Mr. Reed.”
Now she is the only living member of her family left. Can you imagine it? Being all alone in this world with no one to watch out for you in your last days? One of the children has asked, “What will happen if she has a heart attack and there is no one to see and to call us?”
And so we make some excuse to go over each day. “We made too much spaghetti. Would you like to have this dish of the excess?” “We saw it was feeding time and wondered if you needed help,” “Have you seen any snakes in your yard lately?” “What about this rain? How long do you think it will go on?” “We’re making a run to the feed store. Do you need anything?”
I feel a great responsibility for her now, since she has no one. We must be there for her, to check on her, to care about her needs, to know when the thin, thin veil between time now and time eternal has been pierced.
She has no family, but she has us, here in the center of the land they worked together. We aren’t family, but we are something far more than neighbors.