Pieces of my childhood died last week, and I’m still recovering from the heartbreak.
We drove out to our old house a few days ago, the house where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. My one true home. The previous tenants lost it to the crumbling economy, and the mortgage company let it slip through some crack in the system, so there is no one to care for it. The house is a mess, and the yard is completely overgrown. It looks nothing like I remembered. Years ago, I would run barefoot through the grass and hide behind the trees and dig in the dirt. Now, it is one giant, forgotten plot of memories.
As my sister and I were walking around, looking at a shell of what used to be, the lady who lives next door walked out. She didn’t recognize us at first, but when I told her who we are, she seemed happy to see us and we caught up on life for a little while. She mentioned how much she missed my dad, said it’s not often you have neighbors who become best friends as well. She told me how people have moved from the neighborhood, one by one, and she feels alone now. Then she told me our other next-door neighbor had passed away. That very week.
Mr. Carl was one of my best friends growing up. He might have been fifty years my senior, but in my youngest years, I was closer to him than I was to my own grandparents. We saw each other every day. My mom likes to tell the story of how Mr. Carl and I first connected.
He never liked to come inside our house, especially if my dad wasn’t home. My only guess is that there was still a great feeling of discomfort about being a black man alone with a white woman in her house, since he lived through times and experiences that I can’t even begin to imagine.
One day, my mom heard Mr. Carl shouting for my dad from outside. She had me in her arms, and went outside to talk with him. The news he gave her came like a punch to the gut. Mr. Carl’s beloved son, Tony, had succumbed to cancer that morning. I don’t know if my mom cried for the loss of such a young and talented life, or stood there numb. She never tells that part of the story because what happened next was more important.
I, the girlchild who cried when anyone except my own parents tried to touch me, reached out for Mr. Carl. I guess he was probably a little caught off guard at first, but he took me in his arms. We held each other, and an intense and sacred bond was created.
Over the years, Mr. Carl looked out for me like a grandfather would. I would run out into my yard to play, and Mr. Carl would be in his yard, working on one of his old, vintage cars. He’d take a break to get some ice cream sandwiches and we’d talk or play with one of his many pet dogs. Later, when my little sister came along, he switched out the ice cream sandwiches for Klondike bars (her favorite) and Pepsis (my favorite). When my sister and I held one of our many elaborate yard sales (read: sitting outside with our stuffed animals on a miniature bench in our front yard), Mr. Carl kept watch to make sure we weren’t abducted by some stranger passing by. He even bought one or two of our sale items on occasion.
As I got older, I spent more time with friends and less time running across the yard to Mr. Carl’s house. Eventually, he put up a fence around his yard so his dogs could run loose inside. I still saw him from time to time, and he’d comment on how old we were all getting. When we spoke, it never felt awkward. It was like no time had passed, like nothing would ever change. We weren’t blood relatives. We weren’t close in age or color or gender. We were merely neighbors. And friends.
Since my dad passed away, I’ve been out to my old neighborhood only a few times. Because it used to be occupied, I’d just drive by, glancing at the house and remembering. I never stopped to talk to Mr. Carl or any of the other neighbors. I guess it was just too painful to get that close to the past.
Last week’s visit, and the talk with my neighbor, changed things. I went to Maxine, Mr. Carl’s lifelong love, and gave her my best. It was awkward and I felt shy and uncomfortable. What does one say in this kind of situation? There are no adequate words to explain to her that, no matter how many years passed, no matter how old we’ve gotten, no matter how different our lives were, Mr. Carl had a deep and lasting impact on my life and who I’ve become. No words can fill or even touch the gap that his death leaves.
Live fully. Do what makes you happy. Make others smile. Take time to appreciate the good things about everyone. Laugh without holding back. Buy a twenty-five cents stuffed animal from the little girl’s yard sale next door. Talk to everyone you can. Leave an impression.
It will last. Even after you are gone, the things you said and did remain.