This story is dedicated to my neighbour Stan, who I didn’t know well, but enough.
In the end one of two things happen, you are either filled up or emptied out. Or maybe a wee bit of both. The culmination of the long race of life, and the finish line finally looming up ahead and you having no choice but to cross over, happens to all of us, or will happen, some day.
Stan was no different. 86 years old and 50 of those years spent in the same yellow bungalow with his wife. Apple trees out back, the old clothes line, the perennial garden lining the frontage clearly visible from the picture window where they sat most days, looking out at the world. I’d walk by with the dog, look up and find them looking back. I’d wave and Stan would always nod, not a wave, but an acknowledgement that went deeper.
His wife had one of those debilitating diseases, the ones that take and take and take until there isn’t much left. He cared for her at home, built a wheel chair ramp from the front path up to the door stoop, and kept his vow to love her in sickness or in health, until death. She died, her body emptied out of most things, including some dignity, and the pretty curve of flesh over bone, and her ability to do the personal things that he did for her. But full of his love, I somehow know that even though I can’t prove it is true. I noticed her absence before I knew for sure she was gone, saw him sitting alone in the window, her empty chair.
If Stan was ever outside his house puttering, he’d come over and chat to me. Just before Christmas one year as we were talking at the end of his driveway, I made an appointment with him, told him we’d be out caroling with our family and friends in a couple of nights time and would he be home? He said, “Yes, yes, you come by. I love to sing.” So we did. We detoured around to his place, me walking ahead and wondering if he’d actually be there. As if he had someplace more important to be than home. He was there. He opened the door, nodded to me, and then he stepped out onto the stoop and as we gathered around and began to sing, he closed his eyes and sang out in a strong and clear tenor voice. He knew all the words by heart. He stayed there and sang another carol with us until I was worried he’d catch his death of cold. “Merry Christmas, Stan,” I said. “Merry Christmas,” he replied. “And, thank you,” he said, as he opened the screen door and went back inside to his solitary life.
I never saw a for sale sign, just noticed subtle changes around the place, including a different vehicle in the driveway. I wondered if Stan had died. One day I was filling up my truck at the Petro Can and there he was, pumping gas into his car. “Hey there,” I said, “how are you?” He looked up at me, took a moment and said, “Well hello, I’ve moved.” “I was wondering about that,” I said, “I haven’t seen you around your place.” “I’ve moved into a Senior’s apartment,” he said, “it’s easier that way. I can get meals if I want them, and I don’t have to worry much about anything else.” “Good seeing you,” I said. “I just turned 86,” he said, “it’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” I smiled. He nodded and went back to pumping gas.
The yellow house was knocked down a few weeks back. A new bigger foundation is in its place. It turns out I know who bought the old place. Another neighbour who knew Stan for years and saw the potential, the beautiful lot, the proximity to the beach. He and his wife tried to live in Stan’s old house for a few months. But it was too much for them, too many quirks. “There’s no insulation in it,” he tells me. “I had to cut a hole in the wall and stuff in an air conditioner last summer, it was that hot.” In the winter they noticed a problem with the plumbing, called Stan up, they knew him well enough to do that, just to ask him if he’d ever noticed anything. “Oh that,” he said, “If it gets below -10 you have to take a kettle of hot water and pour it over the step. Not the top step, but the next one down. And if it gets more than -20, sometimes it takes 2 kettles.” He’d lived like that for over 50 years, making adjustments, doing what needed to be done.
Stan died just before Christmas. Last thing I heard he was having stomach troubles. They found him in his apartment, sitting in his favourite chair, the same one I saw through the picture window in his old house. Stan had a stomach ulcer. He sat down one night and stayed there while he slowly bled to death. I hope he went without pain, but knowing Stan, he would have done something if it was necessary.
There are two ways in the end, either you are emptied out or filled up. Sometimes disease or other tragedy comes and takes everything, sometimes it happens quickly and way before you are ready to let go. But sometimes if you are lucky, the ending happens gradually over many years, your whole body filling up with life. And then perhaps you are almost ready to go, having done the best you can and almost everything you had in mind to do.
by Lesley-Anne Evans
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