A friend of mine passed away on Monday of this week. He wasn’t really a peer but, rather 94 years old, my first chiropractor and a neighbour on my street. Yet, despite the nearly 40 years in age differences, he and I had become friends and I mourned his passing though he had long since moved into assisted living with his partner of about 15 years or so.
I hadn’t seen him much since he had moved away as his life with his new companion had taken up most of his time and, my life had also changed quite a bit with a father-in-law, younger than him, who required almost full time care until more recently when, he too, passed away and his estate required settling. There was much going on for both of us to keep up with.
This man had become a pseudo father and even a grandfather figure to me in spite of him having 9 children of his own. He had called me his “10th child” as a place of honour in his heart and though I had that title, I also held the much heralded title of “friend” to him as well.
When his first wife passed away as he turned 80 years old, he was still doing chiropractic sessions for close relatives and friends, such as myself. He no longer charged for his services. Payment came in the form of your company with him and a tea while he talked about his days in the war, his family that he missed, his departed wife, his children and grandchildren. It was fascinating for me to hear his stories, though often repeated, not out of forgetfulness but more out of intrigue for detail that he’d left out and later added to the retold versions. Nothing was ever boring to listen to with him…at least, not for me.
There were days when I was busy with my own life, working from home with a self-created business, taking care of a household and being a mom. Yet, the moment he picked up the phone, calling me to come “sit with him” as he “needed to talk”, I’d unhesitatingly leave what I was doing and go to sit with him. In my mind, there should be no such thing as “too busy” when someone is lonely and in emotional pain. Nothing is that important, unless of course, one has someone else more in need.
There came times when he became so depressed that despite his many children and grandchildren, he felt alone. Perhaps, there’s something less inhibiting about talking to “a friend” than family members but, he shared his thoughts with me as well as his heartaches more freely than he seemed to do with others and, I felt honoured to be that sounding board for him.
I came to love this man as though he were my father or grandfather and felt that though I didn’t truly know his children in actuality, I knew them through him and his accounts of his life. While I didn’t have 9 other brothers and sisters, I felt as much one of his children as I could possibly feel given that I wasn’t born into the family. He made me feel that way.
I tried my best to keep his spirits up by simply being there, listening and talking. In return, I felt that I had also been given the gift of his friendship. As much as I gave, I received from him in return in a different way. I learned that giving of yourself and your time is not a waste of time.
“I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to an old man’s stories,” he’d say with assurance that he recognized that most younger people didn’t have time for stories from an older person of days gone by “but, damn it, I am lonely and I need a friend.”
He confided in me and I tried my best to respond in the best way that I could and, he’d often tell me that it was me who “saved his life” by being there as his friend.
At 81 years of age, he met his companion and sold the house that he’d built for his family to one of his children and moved into her condo to be with her, a woman a year older than him. Still, he’d drive over to my home at least once a week, plunking himself down on my couch, talking away whenever he needed my ear and “his friend” as he’d say.
At 92 years of age, he and his companion decided to move into an assisted living facility where their meals and other chores were taken care of. He didn’t like it much but, felt that with his declining abilities to care for these types of things for both of them, it was the best choice.
We lost contact for several months as he’d forgotten to give me his new phone number but, I got a call from him, angry at me for “not phoning him,” as that’s “not what friends do to each other.” I had to remind him that he hadn’t given me his new number. He calmed down and laughed.
Just before Christmas of 2014, he had turned 94 years old and I called him to wish him both a happy birthday and a merry christmas. His building had been locked down with a flu outbreak as a lot of elder care facilities have happen each year. For 3 weeks, he was miserably ill and totally unhappy that he couldn’t do as he pleased. I promised to visit him in the new year.
I never got that chance to see him one last time. I got sick myself and knew I wouldn’t be allowed in as it wasn’t good for anyone in the building. I was waiting to get well again to go see him when an accidental meeting of a mutual friend to one of his daughters, alerted me to the news that he had passed away a few days before-hand this past week. It was purely by accident that I bumped into this mutual friend and I felt my knees buckle beneath me as I heard the sad news. I blamed myself for not having called him during the nearly 3 weeks that I had been sick. Yet, I came out, knowing that the bump-in that I’d just had with that mutual family friend, hadn’t been just a coincidence. We never had seen one another prior to this and, I rarely entered the store that we were in nor, did she. Something bigger than coincidence was at play and, I knew somehow that he was orchestrating it all no matter how corny that all may have sounded to anyone listening to me say it.
I attended his funeral yesterday and though most people were dry eyed as he was, after all, 94 years old and couldn’t live forever, I wasn’t one of them. Even his children took it better than I did and I met every last one of them, finally.
The entire time that I was there, I kept feeling guilty for not having been able to see him or called him more than I had called him in his remaining time on this planet. I wondered if I had been a “bad friend” or, whether I had made more out of our friendship than it really was. It was hard for me to be there and I stood by his casket, trying not to cry, apologizing to him quietly on my own and patting his arm, placing a kiss on his cold cheek one last time, tears wanting to tumble down my cheeks in spite of the many who had not shed a tear and went on chattering about other things around me. I was thankful to go unnoticed at that time or, at least, I thought I was unseen.
As I was about to leave, feeling that I had done what I came to do, one of his children grabbed me by the arm, then another and another.
“You were Dad’s one true friend,” one said to me, giving me a hug that broke me down into tears. “Dad told us all that you were his real and only friend.”
Another, spun me around to face her at this point.
“Dad told me about how you saved his life and made him love himself and want to go on again,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “He told us all about how you were the one who got him through the hardest time in his life, were there for him during it all and how much he loved you.”
“I can’t thank you enough for what you did for our dad,” said another, rubbing my shoulder as they surrounded me. “He treasured your friendship and all that we heard was how much of a friend…his ONLY friend…you were to him.”
I was so deeply touched by their words that I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was them, consoling me that had me so touched when it should have been the other way around.
“We are so grateful that you were in our dad’s life,” said another. “We can’t thank you enough. It’s like he became a new man because of you and went on to live until now.”
Another apologized for not having thought to have let me know that he had passed away.
“How could I have forgotten you when you were such a big part of Dad’s life?” she said, shaking her head at herself. “I’m glad that you found out through my friend. And by the way, that was not accidental or a coincidence that you bumped into her that day. I’m sure Dad made sure that you knew because I’m a bone-head.”
“I lost my own father in 1999,” I said, dabbing my cheeks with tissues I got handed by one of the daughters. “I want to thank all of you for sharing your dad with me.”
I left the funeral in tears. They weren’t tears of grief as I knew that he had to leave at some point and had been ailing for a number of years. They were tears because I really never knew how much I had meant to this man all of those years. HIs children let me know that it was more than I could have imagined. I had mattered. I had made a difference in his life, just as he had made a difference in mine. His words in telling me that much, weren’t platitudes. He had sincerely meant them and his children, though not having to do it, validated that for me and likely, moreso for him as he could no longer speak for himself.
We may not feel as though we make a difference in people’s lives. It may even be unspoken but, we do play a part in other’s lives no matter how small or how big. Never doubt that about the time and care that you give to other people.
Be yourself and care about other people. Give your time to those in need, no matter how small it may seem to you, it may mean the world to someone else. Don’t ever think that just by talking to someone, you aren’t making a difference. Simply being there can make a world of difference for them and you.
Today, while I’m missing my friend and still tearing up over the simplicity and beauty of caring for others..that’s how I’m seeing things from my little corner of life.