This week, I talked with a friend about living the rest of our lives, and how even if the first half of our life wasn’t all we wanted, or we weren’t quite where we wanted to be yet, there is no reason the second half cannot be fuller and the more we want. We can always live life in a way that when we are gone, our life and deeds echo in the lives of others.
Yesterday marked for me 5 years since my buddy Jeff died; he was Frances’ husband. I wrote the piece below for a memorial service we had here at the ranch just after he died. All the neighbors gathered for cookies, the children covered my patio with chalk messages to the heavens, and then we simultaneously released hundreds of colorful balloons with our notes to Jeff attached, up into a beautiful, crisp north carolina blue sky. We did the same thing yesterday on a smaller scale, as we have done every year since; me and my wee ones releasing balloons with Frances. As we three turned to walk down the driveway from her house, she called after us and thanked us again for remembering Jeff. “How could we ever forget him?” I asked her.
After five years, I still have not forgotten Jeff; how could I? His life echoes on, a reminder of how we should always be, the very best we can be.
It has been pondered by many. Just what is the true measure of a man? There are a multitude of ways to measure a man’s life, by his acts, by his good will, by his service to the community or by what kind of father, son, husband and brother, and grandparent he is. By what kind of work ethic he demonstrates, and by his fulfillment of civic duty. Or simply by how long he has lived.
The chronological measure of course is in years, 90 years in Jeff’s life, or as my mathematical son says, 32,850 days to be exact (which tickled Jeff to know on his last birthday). I too recognize that when a man is ninety years old the measure of his life for many is encapsulated in the slices of life they shared with him, be it a lifetime, a decade, a year, a month, or a day.
I tried to think back these last days, really on all the memories I had of Jeff. Things that said a whole lot about who he was in just the short ten years that I knew him, his “eighties” decade to be exact. I was flooded with a million examples of the goodness in his heart. They say you never know when you are making a memory, and now I realize how true that is, because I have so many memories of Jeff, that were not the big things, but the little things. For it is not the big things in life, but the daily behaviors repeated over and over during a course of a lifetime that define a man, his habits; those things that will be experienced by any one of us in any random stretch of time with that person we have, and make wonderful memories out of the ordinary for all of us.
I remembered a time when Jeff was in the rehab hospital for what seemed like an eternity, and Frances said she got a knock on her door one day. There stood a perplexed and flustered rehab-van driver explaining that Jeff was out in the van and had made him drive him by their house for Jeff to say hello to Frances…on his way to vote. Jeff had insisted at the hospital that he had never missed voting and wasn’t going to this time just because he was in rehab (and quarantined by the way.) Darned if he hadn’t sweet talked that van driver into a detour from the curbside polls to make an impromptu visit to see his beloved. He had voted and made a gesture of love all in one fell swoop, as good citizens and good husbands don’t do often enough. I once asked Jeff who was president when he was born; he said that what he remembered was the first one he voted for was Calvin Coolidge, as good democrats do.
I remembered a knock at my own door one Saturday morning, yearly it turned out, revealing an eighty-two year old man in a Shriners Fez cap, selling 10 lb bags of Vidalia onions door to door. He was as cute as bug asking in his rehearsed speech (as he did to every neighbor,) “Would you like to buy a bag of Vidalia onions to support crippled children?” How could you resist? And then him driving door to door delivering them (30 lbs to me alone cause I couldn’t help myself) out of the trunk of that faithful old brown Chevy he had for so many years.
Jeff had this way of laughing with delight with children, I mean genuine happiness at a new dress my daughter had on, or clapping his hands together with genuine glee when one of the kids in neighborhood rode a two-wheeler for the first time. He’d say, “Well I dee-clare if that ain’t the prettiest…” dress, bike whatever it was and their little faces would light up like little lightning bugs. They adored him and he them. They flocked to him and wanted to be next to him in a way that children often won’t do with older adults, but he was warm and good stuff to them.
Jeff had this one particular laugh that was only heard when one was telling him what, “he shouldn’t be doing at his age.” If I had a nickel for every one of those laughs I got from him when I stuck my nose in where he thought it didn’t belong, I be a rich woman, and richer still if I had just a penny for every time I pulled him out of some minor peril he had gotten into because of that laugh. He laughed that laugh as he held onto his walker, in response to my question of how he would get away fast enough when he was going to pour gas down a yellow jacket nest in the ground in his backyard. He laughed that laugh even on his last day alive, telling me how he was going to seed his lawn next week despite my protestations of him slipping on a steep,wet hill he intended to seed.
It dawned on me as I thought back on his last week here on earth, on his last days this past weekend, how on each day, without adieu, he had done something that defined him, that offered proof of his measure and offered a snapshot of his entire life.
Some say the a measure of a man is what he does when no one is looking,
I have decided that the measure of this man is what he did in the last seven days of his life.
Jeff had recently gotten wheels, this walker with wheels and a seat on it, and he was determined to walk up and down our road several times a day he hoped, in getting stronger after his recent heart issue. And like the patriarch of the neighborhood that he was, he would walk to the cul-de-sac and sit down, and visit with whoever happened by (or swarmed him like bees to honey.) Then, he would walk to the other end of the street and do the same. Everyone loved spending time with Jeff and would stream out of their houses when they saw him. Everyone quietly watched out for him too.
Last Sunday, he came to our neighborhood picnic. He made a point of making the new folks feel welcome, and it was pointed out with Jeff beaming, that at almost 91, he was the oldest living member of the neighborhood.
It just felt so good to be near Jeff that day, seeing him smile; it felt good every day.
One day this week, he sat in that walker chair in the street grinning from ear to ear as I handed him fresh-baked cookies in tandem, him gobbling them down one after another. He smiled at all the babies. He instructed my daughter how to ride her bike safely on the street, like a good grandparent does. He worried aloud for the gazillionth time about his concrete driveway being cracked, taking pride in his home ownership and appearance, like good citizens do. And he wanted everyone to be sure to know the history of our neighborhood and how it came to be over the years, passing the stories of its creation and about the day Hazel hit along to the children like good story keepers do; passing the torch of history that is not in the books.
He talked to me quietly about my own cancer, assuring me that it would all be alright and holding my hand on sad days, like good friends do. Telling me I looked good bald, like very good friends do. And quite often, he told me I was a very good mom which is something only really good friends do, especially when they have seen you at your parenting worst.
This week, while we were on a walk he shared that he worried about his sons working too hard, as good fathers do. He worried about Frances’ recent eye surgery like good spouses do. He worried out loud this week about his sister, who was ill and failing in Texas. And while walking, Jeff told my son a story about his older brother Mutt who as a child, had a brace on his leg and couldn’t keep up with the other kids on the 2 mile walk to school. He told us that his mom sent him to school early at the age of four to walk with Mutt; to protect him. Jeff had his brothers’ and sisters’ backs all their lives. Like good brothers do.
He was a great athlete and role model as well; I hope I can do five laps up and down the street I am 90. And in this world that has forgotten the value of exercise, good nutrition and hard work, all of our kids saw a living example of how to take care of your body, your spirit and stay in shape. Of how to live long and live happy, and in a place of gratitude.
On his last day on earth, he was out talking and walking. He was seen anonymously taking neighbors trash bins in, slowly and one at a time. He was heard worrying with the top to his water meter that had fallen off, and about cutting down his Mimosa tree so it wouldn’t be so messy on the road, like good neighbors do. But I secretly knew he’d never cut that Mimosa tree back, he just loved watching the hummingbirds in it each summer from his porch, appreciating God’s wonder in nature, and providing them a home as good stewards of the earth do.
On his last morning, he awoke very early to watch his church service on TV, to feel a part of his Christian community, as he had been too weak to attend recently, as he had every Sunday for his entire life.
He spent the evening taking his final lap on Hales Rd, on a beautiful pre-fall day, and shared with everyone he came across that he thought he was becoming stronger and stronger. He didn’t realize this but his heart was always strong enough for ten men, in it’s capacity to love.
On his final evening, in his favorite chair, he was watching “the game” on TV, cheering for his team, his love for sports and team play offering a hint of the undercurrent and core value in him that was about working together and rooting for the home team. Jeff lived his life as a good team player does, cheering for the underdog, encouraging others and being the best of teammates.
It was shared with me that in his last hours Sunday evening he said to Frances, “I’m sorry you have to worry with this,” about something she was stressed over, expressing his concern for other’s anxieties in his good-natured way, just like good egg’s do. And that evening, just an hour before he passed he insisted on doing the dishes for her, like good husbands do, really good husbands, those who still do dishes after 59 years of marriage. Later, as he sat in his chair resting, and she stepped out of the room for minute saying she’d be right back, he said, ‘I’ll wait.” Then, quietly, he passed. Promising to wait not matter what the circumstance and place was, as the best of spouses do; giving her the gift of knowing he will be there for her, waiting.
In seven days, God created the earth. In his last 7 days, Jeff showed us how to live right on that earth. In just the small snapshot of seven days of his life one can find his examples of a great neighbor, a great friend, a great role model, and great brother, father, and husband. A great steward, a great Christian, mentor, citizen and a team player. And not just a good egg, a great egg… a golden one.
This fact remains, Jeff was just a great human being every day and mostly when, as they say, people weren’t looking. But we were looking, our hearts were listening and our children were watching with great attention. We were all learning from a life spent doing good, a life of caring and being genuine. A life that left memories for all of us big and small, of how to do it right. And we were thanking God for every day we had with him.
That is the measure of a man. We love you Jeff, and thank you, thank you for what you taught us and our children, and for how you lived; for your kind and gentle ways. You affected immeasurable lives in immeasurable ways.
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please,
Please won’t you be my neighbor?