Archive for the ‘friends’ Category

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Two Dogs, One Book, and a Long Lost Friend

August 21, 2016

“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master

This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.

The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.

Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.

We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.

However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.

Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.

However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.

Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?

I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.

The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.

In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.

One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.

George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out the of Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.

Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.

During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.

“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”

The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.

“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.

“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”

I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.

The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.

As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.

After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”

I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.

“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.

The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.

Chloe

Chloe

A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.

She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.

I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.

I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.

The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.

I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.

“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”

Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.

“Well, he hates cats.”

I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.

“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”

I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.

Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.

I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.

“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”

I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.

Bruno

Bruno

How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.

It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.

I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.

And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.

Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.

To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.

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A World Without

October 5, 2015

There is the world, and then there are our worlds. The world is populated by billions of people. Our worlds are populated by a number vastly smaller, and a smaller number still who are essential to us, people it would be hard to imagine being without.

Now we are without Tony. And the feeling is numbing.

How could this possibly be?

Tony was an unforgettable teacher who I had the great privilege of working with for over two decades, a master director of plays and purveyor of literature for countless fortunate students. He was a valuable mentor who shared insights about this delicate art called teaching. He was a loving husband and father and grandfather.

And Tony was my friend. How could all of us who shared in his life be without him?

I think of all those stories told and retold over lunch at school, the always-ready wit that rang of truth, the common everyday conversations about work and family and life that replay in my mind with such clarity in spite of the time gone by. And I miss these now even more in this world without.

The world goes on as it always has done and always will. Even our own worlds go on, but never quite the same, for though these endings are an inevitable part of our existence that must be accepted, the pain and sorrow of our world without is hard to endure.

But endure we will, and through our fond remembrances we honor him. All of those whose lives have been made better for having known Tony — and that number is great indeed — now feel such intense loss. However, though we are left in a world without, our memories of Tony are his lasting gifts to each of us whose life he touched, and for that we should remain forever grateful.

Tony

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On Thin Ice

January 8, 2015

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My memory seems to operate in quite an illogical manner. Perhaps everyone’s does, I don’t know. There have been some experiences of supposedly great significance about which I hardly remember a thing (my high school and college graduations, for example). However, certain insignificant and seemingly meaningless ones somehow stick in my brain as clearly as if they just occurred the other day. My head is filled with these kinds of memories. One that is triggered by cold winter days such as this involves some thin ice and a childhood friend named Steve.

I knew Steve all the way through school though we didn’t really have much close contact until junior high school. Ah, yes — junior high school, the quintessential American repository for awkward adolescence. This was a period of time that many of us would just as soon forget. Indeed, much of it has been forgotten on my part (or purposely blocked out) for that very reason. But this particular recollection involving Steve has never left me.

Steve Meadows was the poster boy for the young absent-minded professor. He had pale skin and unkempt hair so blonde it was virtually white. Fashion was clearly not his focus. Rumpled half-out-of-his-pants shirt accented with a pocket protector and his ever-broken glasses perched on his nose were his standard fare. Had we used the word “nerd” back then, he would have been the king. I liked Steve in spite of this. He had a creative mind, was quick to laughter, always shared, and was nice to a fault. It was this last virtue that played a critical role in what occurred.

One of my best friends, Teddy, would walk part of the way home with me from Roy W. Brown Jr. High. This happened to be the same route Steve took, so we often walked together. The street we went down crossed over a stream that cut through town and was always the source of some form of amusement like bombing the leaves that floated downstream with pebbles or betting on which stick we dropped in would pass under the bridge first. Gawky thirteen year old boys really got a kick out of stuff like that.

It was during the winter months, however, that this stream reached its peak of interest. Whenever a cold snap arrived, the stream, which was only a few inches deep, would start to freeze at the edges. If it got cold enough, the ice would cover the whole width of the stream, but never too thickly because of the movement of the water beneath the ice.

On our way home, we would peer over the side of the stone bridge that traversed the stream, checking on the progress of the ice. A debate about whether it was currently strong enough to support us would ensue. The three of us would then make our way down the bank and begin to do some preliminary test probes with a single foot. What followed was always the same.

Either Teddy or I would say, “It seems pretty strong to me, don’t you think?”

“Sure does,” the other would say. “I’m sure it would support us!”

“Yeah! Come on, Steve. Try it!”

Steve would doubt our assessment, but after some weak protest and our continued coaxing, he always took a few furtive steps onto the ice. Inevitably, on about the third step, the ice would break, and Steve would end up with wet shoes and a look of chagrined I-told-you-so on his face as Teddy and I laughed hilariously. It never failed to be the funniest thing we had ever seen. Even Steven would be laughing as he shook his head and plodded back up the embankment, shoes squishing as he went.

The funny thing was, Teddy and I knew darned well that he would go through the ice, and Steve knew that we knew, but he would do it anyway. It was similar to Charlie Brown’s repeated episodes of trying to kick the football with Lucy always ending up pulling it away. It seems that we were immersed in some adolescent ritual of acceptance, and though each knew exactly what the outcome would be, we played it out anyway. I suppose Teddy and I were actually taking advantage of Steve’s good-natured willingness, but he embraced his role, and the game went on for an entire winter.

I have never gone to a high school reunion — such gatherings are most definitely not my cup of tea — but I sometimes get the urge to drop by just to see how Steve turned out (though I think that reunions probably aren’t his cup of tea either). I imagine that he became successful in some sort of scientific endeavor (he was brilliant in this field during high school), but one never knows. I want to ask him if he too remembers this silly little incident that we repeated throughout that winter. I hope that if he, like me, does remember, it would be with a smile.

Though really only a flicker in time when the paths of our lives once intersected, memories such as this — inconsequential as they may be — become part of the intimate connection we sometimes share with others. I suppose it is that which makes them not so insignificant after all.

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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2014

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him still, especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

AIDS has not gone away, but over the years it has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married his girlfriend, another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie since the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, continually attempted to rescue me from crisis.

One such instance occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment, he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of AIDS. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either.

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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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Like Young Lovers Do

November 5, 2013

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Mark and Maggie got married.

Each followed a long and sometimes trying path to arrive at this most blessed event. Only they know all of the twists and turns and sometimes dark corners through which they had to journey. But Mark and Maggie found each other. The strands of their lives wove together to merge in love and harmony, and this joyful union became a reality.

How I became involved in this marriage is a story I can tell, one with its own twists and turns.

I have known Mark and Maggie since their arrival many years ago at the school in which I taught. Mark started as a substitute and then got a position as a reading teacher. Maggie was initially a first grade teacher, then moved up to fourth, and eventually ended up as the seventh grade English teacher. Both of them are terrific teachers, the kind you would want your own kids to have. They are funny and kind, insightful and resilient, patient and honest, and beloved by all. They are my friends, and I am forever grateful for that.

Char is also my friend. She was from Paterson (as was Mark, as fate would have it). I met Char on the other side of the world when we both served as volunteers in the Peace Corps. Life separated us for three decades until the technological miracle of the internet enabled us to reconnect. I am forever grateful for that as well.

Char is a master story teller, and about a year ago she told me the tale of how she married two of her friends in California, where she now lives. And how exactly does one do that? By becoming an ordained minister. Online. Just like that, one can be the means by which young lovers can legally be joined in wedlock. At that time she told me that I should do the same because one never knows. I merely chuckled at the thought.

This spring a group of friends with whom I taught met for dinner. I don’t see them as often since my retirement, so I relished the thought of the evening together for we always have a good old time. However, it was to be more eventful than I had expected. Over cocktails and out of the blue, Maggie announced that she and Mark would be getting married. Amongst all the oohs and ahhs, the suggestion sprang forth (I honestly don’t even remember from whom) “Why doesn’t Donald marry you!”

So what are the chances that this would progress beyond this seemingly flippant comment during dinner? Well, Maggie and Mark liked the idea. They would not be getting married in a church. I have been good friends of both for many years. So why not Donald?

And that brings us back to Char. The following day I returned to my old e-mails and found the website she had sent me. There it was. The Universal Life Church.

And just what is the Universal Life Church you may be asking? Well, so did I.

It turns out that this is no fly-by-night organization (depending, of course, on how liberally you want to interpret “fly-by-night”). There are many prestigious people who are and have been ministers of the ULC. The list is as long as it is diverse, including Conan O’Brien, Bryan Cranston, Ray Bolger, Hunter Thompson, Mae West, Paul Newman, Richard Branson, and all four Beatles. OK, so one must liberally interpret “prestigious” as well. But the mission statement of the ULC is quite admirable in any case:

“The Universal Life Church strongly believes in the rights of all people from all faiths to practice their religious beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are, be they Christian, Jew, Gentile, Agnostic, Atheist, Buddhist, Shinto, Pagan, Wiccan, Druid or even Dignity Catholics; so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others and are within the law of the land and one’s conscience.”

Not bad, huh? Except maybe for those stinking Pagans. But I digress.

I proceeded to get ordained myself. It was a grueling process during which I had to memorize passages from the Old and New Testaments, the Torah, the Koran, and the Upanishads…oh, wait a minute…that was to join the Masonic Lodge. But I did have to fill out an online application. And so on May 5 of this year, I joined the ranks of the ordained with this official e-mail notification:

“Let it be known on this date that in accordance with the laws of the Universal Life Church Monastery, as ordaining officer, I, Brother Martin, do ordain you into our ministry. From this day forward, you are entitled to all of the rights of an ordained minister. You have the authority to perform marriages, baptisms, and all other ceremonies of the church. You are an independent minister of this church. This is a position that carries with it a burden of responsibility; please respect others and comply with the laws of the land.”

So, on November 1, I joined in wedlock Mark and Maggie. The wedding was held outdoors. It rained all morning, but the skies cleared for them, and with the backdrop of the changing autumn leaves, Mark and Maggie walked down the aisle together.

In spite of not getting a chance to rehearse, the ceremony went smoothly (except for me not signaling the guests to be seated, quickly rescued by Gil, the groundskeeper, who did so quite gracefully, I was informed). It included several readings by Maggie’s nieces and nephew: an invocation of blessings from the Four Directions, a Celtic Blessing, and the beautiful Maya Angelou poem “Touched by an Angel.” I managed to slip in a few poetry excerpts too (oh, those English teachers). Mark and Maggie exchanged vows which they had prepared themselves, wonderful vows that came from the heart and moved many of us to tears.

I pronounced them Husband and Wife in my most reverent and official voice. They then turned to walk hand in hand into their new lives together, looking happy and beautiful beyond words, beaming from within. Like young lovers do.

And I am forever grateful for that.

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Microwave Blues (Dedicated to the memory of Lisa Walsh Chesloff)

March 10, 2013

Growing old isn’t easy. Even the simplest of actions can take on an additional dimension of obstacle or burden. That seems like it should be obvious enough, but it has become reinforced for me since I have been helping out my elderly neighbors across the street, Arnold and Lisa. I am thinking about it even more today, for Lisa has just left this life.

Arnold is coping. He is ninety-four. He has survived cancer and the deaths of a young son and his first wife, so he has experience in that area. We just walked over to visit with him, bringing brownies that my wife made (his favorite) and condolences. We asked if he needed anything. He said no, he was fine. As I left, I looked around at all the things that were reminders of Lisa, and I wondered.

There are many reminders for me as well. I had become quite familiar with Lisa since Arnold fell and broke a vertebrae in his neck two Christmases ago. His mobility became severely limited. Lisa, who suffered from several incapacitating conditions herself, became his caretaker. Whenever she needed assistance, I became her “knight in shining armor,” as she put it. Lisa would call and ask me to pick up their many prescriptions at the pharmacy, and since she had a sweet tooth, side stops for Dots or Lifesavers became commonplace. Taking out the garbage and recycling twice a week became part of my routine. Once inside their house, Lisa always had many small chores that needed tending to.

I would often drive them to doctor appointments and medical tests. These undertakings required considerable time. The only  means to get downstairs from their bedroom was a shaky spiral stairway. I would gingerly spot them as they slowly made their way down. We then had to navigate our way through the narrow garage, and getting them both into the car frequently proved to be a harrowing ordeal. After I loaded their walkers into the trunk, there would be a final checking and rechecking of necessary items — garage door opener, cell phone, water bottle, medical identification information — which usually resulted in a trip back inside for a forgotten item. But in spite of all the logistical problems, they enjoyed these trips, for it was basically the only time they got out of the house. Lisa would chat away in the car, Arnold joining in occasionally, his hearing difficulties accounting for some unintentionally humorous exchanges. Once at the doctor’s office or hospital, more tricky maneuvers with the walkers ensued until we situated ourselves in the waiting room, Lisa insisting I sit right by her side.

I have fond memories of Lisa during this time, many of them lighthearted in spite of the duress of her situation. One particular experience still makes me chuckle every time I think of it.

Late one afternoon the phone rang, and it was Lisa sounding a bit desperate.

“Lisa, what’s the matter?”

“Oh, Donald, it’s my microwave. It’s not working. I don’t know what to do. I have to get supper ready for Arnold.”

“Okay, Lisa, I’ll be right over.”

I went over and took a look at the microwave. It was a monstrous old hulk of a thing, a Litton from years ago, and it indeed showed no signs of life. Since Lisa could no longer lift pots and pans to cook on the stove, the microwave had become essential to their existence. She needed to go buy a replacement.

“Okay, Lisa, where would you like to go?”

“Bed Bath and Beyond!” was her immediate response.

“Uh, I’m not so sure they have much in the way of microwaves, Lisa.”

“I’m sure they do,” she replied. “Besides, I like that store.”  So the process began of getting Lisa and her walker into my car and driving off to find a new microwave.

During the ride to Springfield, Lisa told me she wanted the same kind of microwave and that she didn’t want to spend too much. This didn’t look promising. I explained that they probably didn’t even make Littons anymore, and that prices of appliances had gone up.

“Well, all right, but it has to at least be the same size.”

Once at the store, I got the walker and Lisa out, but the ramp that led to the entrance proved to be too steep for her to handle.

“Wait here, Lisa. I’ll run in and check it out.”

I found a sales guy who looked like he would rather be anyplace else on earth rather than working in Bed Bath and Beyond. I asked him where I could find a microwave.

“Microwave?” he asked with a puzzled look. “Do we even carry them?”

I told him I was sure I didn’t know, so he directed me several aisles over to look in the kitchen section. There I found another salesperson. I asked again.

“Yes, but we only carry one model, and we’re out of it.” Wonderful.

I returned to Lisa and relayed this news, subduing any hint of “I told you so” that might in other circumstances have crept into my voice. I suggested we drive to Maplewood to the mall where both Home Depot and Target were located. She agreed, and I got her and the walker back into the car just as the sun began setting.

I pulled into the parking lot in front of Home Depot. Since it was getting late, I had Lisa wait in the car while I did some consumer reconnaissance. The Home Depot had a decent selection, but nothing special. I sprinted over to Target and into the appliance department. There I saw it.  A Panasonic, same capacity as the old Litton, and on sale to boot! Perfect!

I ran back to the car and drove up to the Target entrance, got the walker, and helped Lisa out. I quickly parked and escorted her into the store.

Now, this particular Target is the size of three football fields, so getting Lisa over to see the Perfect Microwave was no small task. Plus she kept stopping to look at other items along the way.

“Oh, these gloves look nice, don’t they?”

“Uh, yeah, Lisa, they do, but we really need to move along here.” It seemed that Lisa had found a new favorite store.

We arrived at the appropriate aisle, and I showed her the Panasonic.

“See? Same capacity as the old one. And it’s on sale.”

“Oh, good! Let’s get it!”

Both of us felt quite relieved as we drove home. Once back at the house, I had to remove the old microwave and take it outside for disposal. I tried to lift it, but it wouldn’t budge. A quick look underneath revealed the reason. Twenty years of caked up grime had fastened the old Litton like cement. A good deal of prying and grunting followed, but I finally freed it. Carrying it out turned out to be another Herculean chore, for the thing weighed a ton. That done and the counter reasonably cleaned, the project seemed about to be finished.

Not so fast. The power cord from the Panasonic was situated on the side farthest from the outlet which was behind the refrigerator. It would not reach. Not to worry, I told Lisa. I had a three-pronged extension at home.

As I rushed in the door, my wife, who by now had prepared supper, asked if I had finally finished.

“Not quite,”  is all I managed as I hustled back out with the extension.

Back across the street, the connection reached successfully, and the last step began: instructing Lisa on the use of the new microwave. I showed her how to set the power and the time and turn it on. I repeated the demonstration several times. She tried it. Nope, not quite.

“Well,” I said, “all you have to do is follow the instruction manual.”

“No,” she replied frowning, “I can never understand those darn things. Just show me again.”

Fifteen minutes later, she thought she had it. I returned home for my now-cold supper. Part way through my pasta, the phone rang. Lisa again.

“Donald, something’s wrong. I tried to heat up the meal, but it isn’t going, and a light keeps flashing.”

“OK, I’ll be right there.” My wife just rolled her eyes.

She showed me what she had done, and I pointed out that she had mistakenly hit the “child lock” button instead of the “on” button. I showed her again how to do it correctly and prepared to leave once their meal was spinning merrily in the now-functioning Panasonic.

“Oh, Donald, what would I do without my knight in shining armor?” Sigh.

Several weeks later when I went to get the garbage, Lisa told me there was a problem with the microwave. I thought perhaps a refresher lesson was in order.

“No, it’s not that. I don’t like the way it opens. The old one you didn’t have to pull open. And besides, I can’t see the buttons. I think we should return it.”

“Lisa, I really don’t think you can return it now. Let’s see what we can do.”

Not seeing the buttons turned out to be the result of poor kitchen lighting because of a small wattage bulb, easy enough to remedy. I slid the microwave closer to the edge of the counter to change the arm angle needed to pull it open. Lisa didn’t seem convinced, but she never brought it up again. I assumed all was well since subsequent dinners reached Arnold sufficiently heated, so that was the end of the microwave blues. It is just one of the many memories that will stay with me.

In Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout said, “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.” Lisa always let me know how much she appreciated those “little things in between.” I hope she knew how much I appreciated those things that made her who she was, her undying love for Arnold, her can-do attitude in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, her indomitable spirit. Although her passing brings us sadness, I choose to remember her with joy. I will continue to go over and help Arnold as much as I can, and I’m sure he will share many of his stories of her with me. People become a part of you, and they stay a part of you even after their departure. Lisa became a part of me as I did of her, and I celebrate her memory because of that.