Thursday, September 27, 2012

Portrait of a Neighbor

It's a gloomy morning here in central Pennsylvania.  When I heard the rain hard and steady on our roof window first thing this morning, I decided to delay my run and opted instead to go downstairs to reflect or attempt to do something productive.  A short time after turning on our living room light, the doorbell rang.  Knowing the reason for our early morning visitor, I opened the door to find Marisol and to hear the news about my neighbor Charlie.  He passed away at 3:45 this morning.  Marisol appeared tired and sad, but perhaps a bit relieved.  Charlie was ninety-two, and he'd been bedridden for the last several years.  We all thought he'd seen his last days this summer, but somehow he summoned strength and made it to his birthday and then some.  He was a fighter, continually showing us more of his his strong will and determination.

Bev, one of Charlie's caregivers and closest friends, stopped by last night to let me know that Charlie took a turn for the worse.  When I asked to come and visit later in the evening, she warned me that he no longer looked himself.  She was right.  His already-thin body now even more slight after days without food, his breathing was shallow and erratic.  He wasn't conscious.  But Bev and the hospice nurse there reminded me that hearing is typically the last thing to go and encouraged me to come and to talk.  My words to Charlie were few.  I asked him to be at peace, and I told him that I love him, something that I've vocalized to only a few people.  During episodes when he struggled to keep breathing, I prayed silently and held his arm.  (I think that the holding did more to comfort me than to comfort Charlie.)

While we sat with Charlie, Bev and I shared Charlie stories.  We talked about his being born in Philadelphia and living most of his life in and around the house that he shared with his wife Dolly on Church Street.  We remembered how he called my kids Natalie Mae and Andrew Jackson (even though Andrew's true middle name is David), and how he helped to build the deck and backyard fencing at our house many years ago.  We recalled how he lovingly cared for Dolly when she had dementia and was bedridden.  We listed his favorite market items: the small bags of Utz potato chips, the sugar cookies with raisin in the center, avocados personally chosen by a favorite standholder, pickles, chicken pot pie, local and in-season tomatoes.  We laughed about his lack of modesty and attitude -- Charlie went through a stage where he'd answer the door wearing only a shirt and an adult pull-up.  Charlie was particular about what he wanted and when he wanted it.  If you did what he asked, you were on his good side.  Show him any disrespect, and you'd quickly make an enemy.  We wondered about his experiences as a soldier in World War II and what kind of impact they had on his thinking and actions.  We talked about how he made us angry and how he made Bev cry.  Actually, he made a lot of people cry, but he was also deeply caring.  If you gave Charlie a chance, if you found the time and patience to try to understand him, you'd find a brave and loyal friend.

Charlie was a man of few biological relatives who somehow managed to gather a community of people around him, an eclectic group including a couple of long-term caregivers, a doctor, a banker, a boxer, some Lancaster City policemen, and a few neighbors.  How did Charlie, with his fierce temper and sometimes entitled attitude, manage to endear himself to us all?  Maybe it was that he was authentic.  He was human.  Often apologizing when his temper got the best of him, he'd be the first to admit he wasn't perfect.  He let people into his life.  He was brave enough to ask for help.  Though he could be exasperating, we all loved him.

Charlie brought me face-to-face with my own humanity.  I'll be the first to admit that I didn't welcome all of his phone calls and requests for help over the years.  When we moved to Church Street ten years ago, we did so with the hope (and at points, arrogant confidence), that we would be a caring presence for all of our neighbors, responding to every need and invitation.  The truth is that, despite my best efforts, I'm really selfish.  I'm not a perfect neighbor or perfect in any way for that matter.   The ways that I responded, or didn't respond, to Charlie demonstrates this.  I write this not to be self-deprecating, but to be real.  Sometimes I feel like I can't hold my own life together, that I need a lot of help myself.  Maybe we all feel at least a little bit this way, even those of us who appear to be superheroes.  Charlie's presence, his imperfection, his invitations were such a gift to me.  He showed me that it's OK to be needy and to ask others for help.  And he showed me that it's possible for others to love you even after letting your true self show, adult pull-up and all.

Charlie, I love you.  Thank you for the life lessons you've taught me.  I hope you're dancing with Dolly, laughing with the other loved ones you met during your life's journey, and eating to your heart's content.

Have you never heard?  Have you never understood?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth.  He never grows weak or weary.  No one can measure the depths of his understanding.  He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.  Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion.  But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.  They will soar high on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31