I love my neighbors across the way, a couple in their 80s who were both born, grew up and raised their family on this hill that we share. We keep an eye on each other and when the weather is good we’ll pause in our gardening to shoot the breeze and swear at the folks driving too fast down our back road. They both have a wicked and wry sense of humor and often the best gossip around, though they are never cruel or petty. I’ll bake cookies for him because he has a sweet tooth. She and I leave mysterious bags of iris rhizomes, tulip bulbs and seed on each other’s doorsteps—trading flowers. They are good, kind, loving, hard working people who live their golden years in a haze of gardening, mowing, family get togethers and grandchildren.
They drove by last week on their way, I thought, to a usual Sunday dinner. I waved and asked where they were off to. She told me over the car engine that her eldest son had come home from the hospital to die. The doctors couldn’t do anything else for him. They were going to lunch at his family’s home.
I looked at their two beautiful and weather-worn faces and felt the true meaning of the word “heartbreak” in my throat. I raised my hand to my face because I realized I was crying as they drove on past.
I finally found them at home a couple of days ago sitting on the porch swing which faces to the north and a spectacular view. As usual both she and I were covered in mud from working in the garden. Her knees now almost useless from arthritis, she crawls and rolls around weeding and planting, then sits for a spell. I gave both of them a hug and said I was so sorry and is there anything I could do to help and that I was keeping their son in my prayers.
Of course, the words “Is there anything I can do?” are usually offered in the kindest manner. But there is nothing I, or anyone, can do to ease their heartache as they watch their son, now in his early 60s--their first baby--die over the next few days. We sat and swung and the breeze wafted over us and she talked quietly about what had happened. He gruffly expressed his grief, as many men will do, through outrage: at the doctors, the hospitals, the way things are done now. Tears would well up in her eyes and I held her hand and we talked about how beautiful her iris are this year. She gets too much sun on this side of the house and they often wilt and die. But the rain has kept them strong and hearty. The colors are lush purples and joyous pinks and yellows.
Their son’s hands shake now as the disease eats his lungs and spine. She goes over every morning and rubs them. “I told him if he doesn’t like it, tough!” she says and laughs and tears spill over her cheeks and she looks out into the achingly beautiful spring afternoon and clasps my hand hard.
As I leave they take me around the garden to look at flowers like we always do. They need the reassurance of the things they’ve always done or perhaps they sense that I do. I ask again is there anything at all I can do. She says just someone to talk to now and then.
Such a little thing when I want to do so much, but I’m off now to do it.