Saturday, October 19, 2013

Shuffle On

My neighbor told me he was ready to die.
I hadn't heard from him in a while and I knew that he was battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma among other things and I wanted to see how he was feeling so I sent him an email. This was his email back:

I was thinking of bringing you up to date on my condition because I might need your help picking up my mail. Tuesday I went in to have a PET Scan done. The results were not good. My oncologist called me yesterday to tell me that there was a problem with one of my lymph glands and that my cancer has returned. I suspect he is going to recommend surgery to me. However, I think I have had it with surgery. I'm in the process now of researching hospice care.  I'm 84 years old and no one needs me for anything. My children are doing very well. I don't consider what I'm doing now as living, I'm just existing and I'm ready to go.
No one needs me for anything..
I am ready to go...
Those last two lines boomed like thunderclaps in my head. This was the first time I had ever heard someone say they were "ready to go." Questions like lightning followed. If we are no longer "needed for anything" does that determine when it's time to go? Is that how you know? Why do we fight to stay alive, subjecting ourselves to surgeries, medications, therapies and treatments just to survive? Is it solely because we know, or believe, others need us, depend on us? When no one does, it is time to let go and head to the next world?
I immediately put away my phone (I was reading my email on it) and drove home with these questions swirling in my mind. I knocked on my neighbor’s door. After what seemed like quite a while he tottered to the door and seemed a bit surprised to open it and see me standing there.
"You know I just can't hit reply to that email." I said with a twinkle in my eye. We had always had a friendly, playful banter between us.
He made a low chuckling sound. He didn't look well. His eyes were sunk deep in his face; there were dark circles underneath them, and he was holding on to the door for support. He began to cough.
"Can I come in?" I asked.
He motioned for me to come inside.
Once inside, I turned toward him. "Can I hug you?"
He said, "Sure." and gave me a hug. He was frail, but solid, and at well over 6' it was a little like hugging a sturdy tree.

I met my neighbor, James, about five years ago when I first moved in to the neighborhood. He was a tall, lanky African American gentleman, long retired from public utility work, divorced, with three kids. He loved toffee peanuts,Obama, jazz, and MSNBC, especially “The Ed Show.”
It all started with apples.
A little while after I moved in, we chatted it up near the community mailboxes. He told me he wasn't feeling well and was battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma. His eyes looked tired and he had lost a lot of weight. His denim overalls were hanging off him making him look a little bit like a scarecrow. I went home and grabbed two granny smith apples from my fridge and wrapped them up with cellophane and a bow and placed them outside his door with a note that said, "An apple a day..."

The next evening I had a note on my door that said, "Thanks for the apples. I do feel better after eating them."
After that, we made a habit of leaving little "porch surprises" for each other. I'd slip a card under his door. He'd put a note on mine. I left him a stack of jazz CDs. Toffee peanuts, DVDs, books, magazines, oranges, chocolates and other treats went back and forth. Eventually, we exchanged emails and he'd update me on how he was feeling and I would tell him about the latest with our local Homeowner's Association. One day, he asked me about the tree I had recently planted in my backyard. He could see it over his backyard fence and was curious.
"Pineapple guava," I told him. "It grows tiny little pineapple like fruit that is just delicious. Plus, it doesn't get too big, more like a shrub with fruit."
He liked it and went out and bought one for himself. He planted it on the property line closest to mine and it grew like a weed up and over the brick fence between our two yards. Both of our pineapple guava trees bore fruit by the second year and we exchanged stories about how the birds were always the first ones to sample a taste of the sweet nectar.
A few summers ago, I bought him a bird feeder and he bought me a bird identification book. I started marking off all the birds I had seen in my backyard and the surrounding area and sending him emails to let him know. He'd tell me what the sparrows were up to in his backyard and how the jays were trying to bully the little birds away from his bird feeder. We went back and forth like this for years - little gifts, little emails. He helped me fix my fountain and hang bird feeders. I picked up his mail and swept his porch. I brought him more apples. He brought me Chinese food--the best Won Ton soup I have ever had-- if he found the strength to make it to his favorite restaurant “Paul’s Kitchen” in downtown L.A. He had a gate installed in the wrought iron fence in his backyard and allowed me to use it so I could take my dogs out on to the walking trail that ran behind our homes. He said he loved to watch the dogs hop through the gate, their tails wagging with excitement about walking somewhere other than the hot pavement of our busy townhome complex. Sometimes we would just sit in his backyard and talk about the hummingbirds, our family trips, the fires raging through Southern California. I recommended he watch the movie "Lincoln" which he did and he let me borrow "The Help" which moved me to tears. At first, I think we may have been a little bit suspicious of each other. Who is this middle-aged white girl from next door and why is she being so nice? Who is this old black man from next door and why is he being so nice? I think one of the saddest things about the world today is that when someone we don't know very well does something nice for us, it seems strange, suspicious, possibly even manipulative? Luckily, both of us ignored this modern axiom and continued to be kind. As a result, our porch exchanges eventually turned into friendship. I met his kids. His daughter invited me to Santa Fe to see the hot air balloon races. I didn't want anything from him and he didn't want anything from me. We were just being kind. Friendly. Neighborly. He was an old black man. I was white, middle aged woman. Deal with it, America.
So when I got his email that he was ready to go, I had to go to his door. No gifts in hand, just me. I couldn't just hit reply. How do you respond to that in an email?  I don't think you do.
After hugging him, he walked slowly and carefully to his favorite black leather recliner and I sat down on his couch. His place was immaculate as usual. My couches were covered in dog fur and cereal drool and his looked fit for a queen. MSNBC was on and the talking heads were bantering about the government shut-down finally being over. Once he got settled and took a few deep breaths, he began to tell me more about his health condition. It was not good. He was very weak, tired, having a hard time breathing, not in any pain, but miserable none the less. His cancer was back big time. He said he had already talked to his kids about not undergoing surgery and how he wanted to "shuffle on" as he described it. I just sat on the couch, my hands folded, nodding my head. What do you say?

So glad to hear you are ready to die.

That makes sense. Time to move on.

No! Don't die!

I didn't say any of the above. I just listened. It was one of the most awkward moments I have ever had. Finally, I swallowed even though my mouth was like a desert and said, "Well, I am glad you were able to talk to your kids. And I understand your wishes, but I would be really sad to see you go, James."
"Well, thank you, but I am ready for whatever comes next."

As if my head wasn't already spinning enough, that line really threw me. I paused to consider it, then repeated it out loud..."Whatever comes next."
He looked at me when I said this and I continued, "You seem like someone of faith to me. You are so kind. So you probably know what comes next."

He just kind of chuckled and looked away, outside, toward the bird feeder and pineapple guava tree. He took a deep breath, coughed and then turned toward me. He smiled. We had never really talked about faith or religion, but he seemed so full of faith, so Christ-like that I just assumed he was a man of faith and knew what the next life held for him. I had never encountered such peace in the faith of death and it was startling. He was ready to "shuffle on." Was he just putting on a brave face?
I sat quietly, overwhelmed with emotion, fearful and yet, calm. A coughing spell overtook him and it took him a while to settle it down. Once he caught his breath, he continued on about the great life he had had and how he just didn't want to end up in one of those "old folks homes" hunched over in a wheelchair or confined to a bed. He hoped to stay home or go somewhere comfortable and have someone take care of him before he passed. I said I understood and hoped that could happen. I said I was happy to help in any way I could. My head was spinning with the magnitude of this conversation. I thought to myself: I must be getting old if I am starting to have these types of talks. Time for a gold chain and a red Corvette to remind me I am alive!  I could have said that out loud and James would have laughed. He has a great sense of humor.

We talked for a while longer and then I said, "Well, James, I am going to get out of your hair and let you get some rest. I am happy to get your mail or anything else you need, no problem. By the way, have you tried for your groceries? They'll deliver them right to your door." He seemed very interested in this and as I let myself out, he followed me and told me how he was going to check on that first thing. I knew he would. James was an Internet savvy senior and he was the only person I know who got up earlier than I did.

That next morning, I got up early and read my email. There was one from him:
I placed an order on It wasn't easy, but I got it done. It's going to be delivered tomorrow between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m.. I really, really thank you for telling me about Von's delivery service.

My pleasure, neighbor.
James shuffled on the morning of Sunday, April 6th, 2014. When I saw his son on my porch I knew what the news was before he announced it. I had seen James only a few weeks before in his home care house in the San Fernando Valley and he didn't look well. The friendly nurses had made him very comfortable, but he was fading fast. He made it to his 85th birthday and then let go. He went the way he wanted to, peacefully.

God, thank you for James. Thank you for his kindness. His friendship. For the way he reminded me that there comes a day when we all must "shuffle on" to the bigger, better place God has prepared for us. I hope our porches will be close in the next life so we can continue to share apples, birdseed, and pineapple guava. I know James has shuffled on, but not out of your hand.

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