Shortly after moving from Chicago to Port Washington 12 years ago, I met one of our new neighbors, a gentleman named Lou. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy. Kind, thoughtful, gentle. Over the next seven years or so, I got to know Lou a bit more. We attended the same church, and we both spent a lot of time outdoors – me working in my yard or throwing the ball around with my son; he tending to his home or the one belonging to the neighbor who lived in the home between us. A widow, Lou was like a son to her. Mowing her lawn and blowing her snow without fail.
These things on their own – mowing the lawn and shoveling the snow – aren’t particularly extraordinary. Like washing the dishes or filling the car with gas, they just have to be done. But they occupy very little space in the real narrative that is taking place in this story. In some ways the real narrative is simpler than the acts themselves because it follows the simplest of human plotlines: compassion.
The thing about people like Lou is that they’re easy to take for granted. I don’t mean in a deliberate and mean spirited way. I just mean that we think they’re always going to be around. Because we want them to always be around. Because life is just better with them around. Problem is that’s just not possible. Is it? They aren’t here forever, and when they leave us, all the tension that their quietude allayed – year after year – sneaks up on you in one fell swoop, cuts you to the quick, pulls the rug from under your feet, steals the breath from off your tongue.
I experienced a moment like that four years ago. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. Warm. Sunny. Ripe for revelry. I was in my basement racing through the laundry so I could get outside to enjoy it, when my wife at the time came down with some news.
I can still feel the words heavy in the air, like they were pitched from an old coal-burning furnace. “Oh, my God, Lou died.” Her words hit me so fast that I had no time to prepare for the impact. It was like a bee sting right between the eyes. They literally took the breath from me, and there was this profound sense of loss, and pain, and sadness, and anger. It was so perfectly unacceptable.
I remember balancing myself against the dryer as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do next. News like that causes this unnatural combination of amnesia and paralysis.
It was just so hard to comprehend; to accept. Lou was only in his early 60s, and like so many others taken away from us too soon, it seemed there was still so much for him to do, to say, to offer.
I finished folding the laundry that day, and as we all must do, I’ve carried on with the ups and downs of my own life. I still miss Lou, especially when I’m outside in my yard. I can almost still see him. Shoveling the snow, pruning the lilacs in the late fall, or just strolling down the sidewalk. But life chronically reinvents itself, and the spirit of people like Lou doesn’t just disappear. It just finds itself back into our lives in unexpected ways. Simultaneously poignant and arcane.
About a year or so after Lou passed, I received a text from a friend and former coworker. “We’re going to be neighbors,” she wrote. She and her husband had bought Lou’s house.
It’s been four years now that they’ve been our neighbors. It’s been nice to have them become part of our block and our community, and to watch how they’ve made the home their own. Of course, it’s only natural to compare and contrast the different way they make their home and how Lou and his wife made theirs. Some quite similar; others altogether different. Both sweet and wonderful, and sometimes it seems the two overlap. Take this picture, for instance. It’s of one of the two lions that are on either side of my friend’s front porch.
I took it on December 1st during my morning walk with my dog Ivan. The Santa caps could only have been put on the night before because it’s the first time I’m seeing them this season. Solemn the rest of the year, the brightly colored hats reveal another side to the pair, because like us, there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Seeing them dressed for the seasons brings an easy smile to my face. With their Christmas caps freshly on, the concrete cats greet the season of Advent with a sense of anticipation and hope. Eager for us to be a little kinder to one another. To stop and notice all that is good in this world. To think of others before ourselves, and to be grateful.
As I walked past, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Lou and his wife because, like my friend and her husband, they, too, had the same playful holiday tradition. When I got home from my walk I texted my friend to tell her how nice it was to see that the lions had once again found their Christmas caps. Out of curiosity, I asked her if she knew that Lou and his wife had done the same when they lived there.
As it turned out, she had no idea that Lou and his wife had started the tradition of the brightly colored red and white caps years and years ago. And I think I might actually like it better this way. Makes the tradition seem subtler, less of a burden. Much more sweet and wonderful and mysterious. Like the season itself – serendipitous, quietly contagious. Like Lou looking down upon us, and gently whispering, “All is calm. All is bright.”