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:
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
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
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.
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.
come in?" I asked.
for me to come inside.
I turned toward him. "Can I hug you?"
"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.”
started with apples.
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
evening I had a note on my door that said, "Thanks for the apples. I do
feel better after eating them."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
sense. Time to move on.
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."
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.
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 Vons.com 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.
morning, I got up early and read my email. There was one from him:
I placed an
order on Vons.com. 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.
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.
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.