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Goodbye, Old Friend

November 12, 2013

I last saw Arnold about two hours before his journey in this world came to an end. He lay in the hospital bed unresponsive, struggling for each breath. Bernadette told me to talk to him anyway, that he could still hear me. I had trouble saying what I should have said. I didn’t really say good-bye. I just touched his bony shoulder and told him that I would look after his house.

I now look at that old red house shrouded by overgrown evergreens across the street from mine, empty but for the memories. I have known Arnold since we moved here thirty-eight years ago, and I had spent much time there during the past two years.

Arnold was my neighbor. He was ninety-four when he left this world. He was one of the wittiest and most upbeat people I knew while he was in it. He lived a long and full life, remaining in his own beloved house until his final week. I suppose it was his time to go, but I miss him nonetheless.

After his second wife Lisa died earlier this year, Arnold soldiered on. He had difficulty walking, and the only way downstairs from the second floor where he spent most of his time was a rickety old spiral staircase. A home care aide — a kind and lovely woman of Ghanaian descent who was dedicated to him — came for several hours a day during the week and sometimes even on her own time on weekends. She would make him meals, clean and straighten, tend to his needs, cut his hair and beard, and most importantly keep him company. Sometimes she would bring along her little son who would call him Grandpa, something he’d talk about with pride. Another woman who Arnold and Lisa had befriended years earlier through their dog care business came on Saturday to shop for him. I would go over to help when help was needed and sometimes just to talk.

We would normally talk about current things — how he missed Lisa, how Bernadette’s parents were doing, the state of his own health, the difficulties of making ends meet. But at other times he’d tell me about bygone years. Arnold could tell his stories with great verve and a sparkle in his eye. The one about the time he guarded Italian prisoners of war at a base in South Carolina during World War II, how his first wife Rita would come to the gate to meet him after his duty ended, smiling and waving at those prisoners, how they were so taken with her they baked a cake for her when they found out it was her birthday. The one about how he met and wooed his second wife Lisa, how she would come into the store in which he’d taken a part-time job and buy one of everything — one apple, one muffin, and finally, at the liquor counter where he worked, one small bottle of wine — until one day he asked since she was alone perhaps he could join her sometime for a bigger bottle of wine. There were stories about his younger years growing up in the Bronx, about the many dogs in his life — the ones he’d owned, the ones he’d cared for. But other stories he told with melancholy in his voice,  about Rita’s unexpected early passing, about the illness and tragic death at age fourteen of his son, a sorrow that stayed with him forever.

Whenever business needed tending to, he would call me, usually for a trip to the bank or the post office or the pharmacy. Calls of a more urgent nature came as well, for Arnold began falling with greater frequency. He had broken a vertebrae in his neck two Christmases ago in a fall, so this became a matter of great delicacy. Both small and frail, Lisa could not get him up, so Bernadette and I would go over and gingerly position him so that the two of us could lift him without disturbing his neck. All the while Arnold would be making  jokes.

One particular time the call came during supper. We ran over to find Arnold on the floor in the dining room. A whining dog could be heard from behind the closed kitchen door. They still occasionally cared for a few clients’ dogs from their former business.

“Are you okay, Arnold?” asked Bernadette, ever the nurse.

“I sure hope so,” replied Arnold. “I can’t die yet. I still have payments to make on my car.”

The dog, a large beautiful white mixed-breed, then came in and sat next to Arnold, gazing at him with what seemed like great concern.

“I think he’s worried about me!” he quipped.

After Lisa’s passing, Arnold became less and less mobile. Several times when he fell, the fire department had to come to help him up because the situation would be too difficult for us to handle. He would joke with them as well as he lay on the floor.

There reached a point when Arnold could no longer navigate the spiral staircase, so he remained upstairs. He either sat in his bedroom   to eat and watch TV or used a walker to get to his “office” in the spare bedroom where he would occupy himself for hours on his computer. Bernadette suggested that he get a hospital bed downstairs thus enabling him to live on the main floor. There, at least,  he would be able to get to the kitchen and have access to the entrance of his home. After considerable red tape and bureaucratic snafus, this was accomplished.

Of all the items I moved downstairs for him, the most important was his computer, crucial to Arnold because it had become his primary means of passing the time and engaging in the outside world. His laptop sat on an old desk filled with a clutter of papers and surrounded by a tangle of wires plugged into various power strips in a style worthy of Rube Goldberg. I traced each to its device: fax machine, printer, router, telephone, desk lamp. I finally extracted the laptop and brought it to the desk in his new quarters. Next job — getting him back online. Not being technically inclined, I enlisted the aid of Leo, our neighbor two doors down. He connected to the WiFi network from his house, but the signal was weak, and Arnold didn’t know either what his network was called or what the password for it would be if we did find it. Finally Bernadette remembered that this information could be found on the side of the router, and Arnold, smiling ear to ear, was back in business.

One of my last trips to his house came when Arnold called because he couldn’t get out of his new bed. When I arrived, he explained that the mat at the bedside had slid away when he put weight on it, and his new slippers didn’t grip the floor well enough for him to stand. I helped him up and into his office chair which he used to roll wherever he needed to go, propelling himself backward as if in a rowboat by pushing off with small steps.

Later that day, I made a side trip to Home Depot and bought a non-slip runner to bring to him for his bedside. I brought it over and put it next to his bed and tested it to make sure it didn’t slide. It did not, but a hitch in the operation occurred when Arnold tried to wheel his office chair next to the bed. The edge of the runner buckled up from the wheel trying to pass over it. I returned home for some double-sided tape for the edges. Several test rolls proved that problem solved. He asked me to come back early the next morning to unlock the door because the podiatrist would be making a home visit.

At 7:30 the next morning, I unlocked his door and entered to find Arnold on the floor near his bed.

“Arnold! Are you all right? What happened?”

“I fell last night trying to get out of my chair. I spent the night on the floor. The bed is a lot more comfortable.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“I couldn’t. I already had put the phone on the night table and couldn’t get to it.”

I ran home to get Bernadette. She propped him up a bit with a pillow to make him more comfortable as we debated how we might get him up. He was on his side in a very awkward position. Arnold said just to call 911.

The firemen who came a few minutes later had been there several times before, so they were familiar with Arnold and his situation.

“So you spent the night on the floor?” one of them said.

“Well, unfortunately, I did. Have you ever spent the night on the floor?”

“I did, but I hadn’t planned on it,” the fireman chuckled.

“Me neither,” said Arnold with a smile.

They managed to lift him up and get him seated in his roller chair with more than a few groans from the poor old guy. He must have felt miserable after lying there sleepless most of the night on the hard floor, but he didn’t complain. Arnold thanked the firemen and insisted despite their prodding that he didn’t need any medical attention. Bernadette and I left after he had settled in to wait for the doctor. His home care aide would be arriving shortly as well to make him breakfast.

The next few days I didn’t get over to see Arnold because we had much to do and were away for most of the weekend. That Monday morning when I came home from class, a neighbor came over to tell me that an ambulance had come to take Arnold away. My heart sank at the news. Teresa, his aide, had left a note on my mailbox to call her. I did, and she told me that since his night on the floor Arnold became so fearful of falling again that he was spending the nights in his office chair trying to sleep. She said he was breathing rapidly and didn’t look well at all. A visiting nurse who had been scheduled to come to change the dressing on a leg wound saw him and immediately called the ambulance.

We visited him the next day in the hospital. He said he felt better and even joked a bit in his normal manner, but his lungs were congested and he had an IV. Bernadette felt pessimistic about his prognosis. On our next trip there, her fears turned out to be reality.

I wish I could have told Arnold how special I thought he was, how much I admired him for his indomitable spirit and his good humor and his zest for life. I wish I could have said a proper farewell. I guess this will have to be it.

So goodbye, old friend. I hope your passage was peaceful. I think of you each time I walk out my door, no longer to take out your garbage or pick up a prescription or chat about your day, but only to gaze wistfully at your old red house without you in it. I miss you, Arnold, and will remember you always.

Arnold's house

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One comment

  1. You told me this story in the readers digest condensed version at the wedding. Reading it is so much more beautiful.
    I don’t think Arnold needed to hear you telling him you admired me, I believe he knew that by your kindness



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