I came home last night to find my 90-year-old neighbor raking leaves from the gutter. It was so dark I heard him before I saw him.
I briefly considered offering to help as he fought the storm drain with his rake. But he would never accept it. He never has. Even when he should. Like the time I caught him ascending his roof with one hand on the ladder, the other clasping a two by four. He didn’t need my help then. And with two feet firmly on the ground, he didn’t need it now. I think he likes to prove a point: I still have some work to do.
We had our typical evening exchange where I tell him not to stay out too late and he tells me I am a great neighbor. Usually before I go he imparts some wisdom that I think about for the rest of the night. This time it was the last words of one of his friends who died in World War II.
“Don’t go through life being negative. Nobody likes a grouch,” he told Jack. I thought it was good advice.
I tell you this as a reminder to myself. Because I have a habit of going over to the dark side. I actually have a condo there.
However, in nearly two years since moving to Utah I have never caught Jack in a bad mood. Once or twice he was tired and has told me so. But never unhappy. He says this is a choice. Jack has a medical condition where cold temperatures make his bones ache. But he won’t leave winter. His wife likes it here. So he stays, suffers through the pain, and smiles.
“You choose to be happy,” he said.
Sometimes Jack reminds me of my grampa. They are nearly the same age. Both men fought in World War II. Both have engineering minds, married some pretty nice ladies, and have a knack for gardening. But that is where the similarities end these days.
My grampa hasn’t done yard work in a really long time. I can’t recall when he was last able to climb a ladder. And he’s losing his memory. He confuses decades, often asking my mom about people who died before she was born. But he’s still my grampa. And he, too, has some wisdom to relate.
This weekend I was back home in Boston. I missed my family and wanted to visit my twin nephews. The first stop off the plane was grampa’s house. I love going there. Nothing has changed in it since I was small enough to climb down the laundry chute. Not the carpet. Not the appliances. And likely not even the bars of soap stacked in the bathroom. I think that’s why I like it. It reminds me of being a kid when important conversations happened at the kitchen table that I didn’t fully understand.
We sat at that table Saturday morning having coffee and muffins. A packet of old photos held together by three elastic bands leaned against the windowsill. My nana’s picture was on top. We asked him about the pictures. He can remember the where but not the when. I find relief that he can still recall the who.
At my parents’ house we have an early Thanksgiving dinner. All of my people come. We watch as little man attempts to roll over for the first time. He doesn’t get there but he’s close. Later he cries big person tears. My sister does too.
Grampa watches but doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. I find a seat beside him and rub his back, saying sometimes it’s hard because we can’t comfort him. He nods and I wonder if he gets it. My sister moves her chair closer and rests her cheek on his big chest. He takes her hand and just holds it.
“What can you do?” he says lifting his shoulders.
He just sat there holding her hand in silence. And I thought it was the perfect thing to say.