I got a text message this afternoon from a childhood friend letting me know that my former neighbor died. To say it took me by surprise is an understatement; certainly you never expect to receive such devastating news via such a casual delivery method on a sunny Friday.
My neighbor's name was Bill, & right up until I left for college, he & his wife, Christie, lived in the house next door to the one where I grew up. They moved sometime shortly afterward, to a condo in the next town over, & we didn't see them much after that, but throughout the years, I've thought of them with some regularity. In such a small, tight-knit Midwestern neighborhood, they were a huge presence during my childhood, part of so many of my memories.
Bill was a big personality, always quick with a joke & a loud laugh - our Wilson next door but without a fence in the way. He worked nights at the local newspaper, something to do with printing or delivery, so he was often home during the day. My parents used to joke that Bill knew everything about everyone on our street, always the first to relay the scoop on who among our other neighbors was having an affair & whose kids had gotten in trouble with the law & all the other small-town goings-on that people try to keep under wraps. Today, when I blog about things like drug dealers next door & neighbors who have loud sex, I sometimes think fondly of Bill; I like to think that he would get a kick out of what a busybody I seem to have become.
Bill kept their lawn meticulous, & sometimes he'd mow ours, too, though maybe that was just so we didn't make his look bad by proximity. Often, I'd go to their house after school, doing homework at their living room table & playing with their dog, Brandy, until my mom came home from work. Their home was full of collectible pigs, which Christie loved, & I made a habit of counting how many I could find, oftentimes more than 100 of them. One year, after they'd built an add-on room with high ceilings, they brought home a towering, monstrosity of a Christmas tree & decorated it straight out of a Martha Stewart catalog, the most beautiful Christmas tree I'd ever seen. Within a day of setting it up, though, they noticed that it was emitting an occasional pop, pop, pop sound, one that had everyone concerned an animal was living inside. Bill, BB gun at the ready, was going crazy trying to figure out the origin of the noise. Imagine his relief when they discovered it was just a bunch of tiny pine cones, opening up along the branches!
When my dad was sick, & later, after he died, our neighbors helped take care of my mom & me as much as they could. This meant that more than once, Bill stepped in to rescue us from sure disasters - & he always did it with a laugh & a friendly tease. There was the time we returned home to find our back door wide open, afraid someone was lurking inside, & he came over to inspect it before we went inside. There was the time my mom called him, frantic & terrified when she discovered a bat flying in circles around her bedroom, & he ran over, armed with a giant fishing net, to catch it. And there was the time my freshman year of high school, when my mom & I tried to set up a Christmas tree & found ourselves in a state of near-collapse. Bill came over that time, too, fishing wire in hand, & he tied that sucker to the window frame, tight enough that it wouldn't tip over.
Isn't it funny how you can think you don't remember much about a person from your past? And then it all comes rushing back, like it was just yesterday - full, colorful versions of a lifetime ago. When I got that text telling me that Bill was gone, that he'd died at a hospice care facility I didn't even know he was in, suddenly I was 10 years old again, trying to climb the big tree in his backyard & smelling that cigar smoke from his porch & excitedly accepting the blank rolls of newspaper butcher paper he brought home from work for me to use for extravagant craft projects. He was a good man, someone I loved & trusted & whose presence in my life was constant & positive, & although it's been a long, long time since I last saw him, I'm surprised to find that I can still recall his voice, that laugh, & all kinds of packed-away memories I'd nearly forgotten.
I don't know whether I believe in heaven, that there's some happy, shiny place beyond this world where we pass on & spend eternity laughing & singing & dancing with angels, or whatever it is that other people believe about life after death. I know, though, that if such a place exists, there's an old neighbor & a chocolate lab waiting there with a smile, welcoming Bill to join them.