I met him about a year ago. I had been on a walk then, too. The neighborhood geese had lined up in the street in front of his house, blocking my path like an army battalion. He had ambled over beside me, shaking his head at them. I paused my music and we chatted while watching the teenage geese waddle stubbornly behind their parents. He didn't mind the geese, he said, as long as they stayed out of his yard. They scared his squirrels away when they came on his property, and that was a problem.
He told me about the squirrels, how he liked to sit on his back porch and watch them run in his trees, fueled up from his feeders. They never chewed on his roof like they did mine. He said it was because he gave them a home of their own and made sure they always had enough to eat. They respected him, he said. They communicated.
Partly because I was simply too shy to end the conversation, partly because I could see how lonely he was, and partly because he was simply a kind, interesting person, I stood there and stood there while he talked. He told me about his good wife who had died and left him alone a few years back. When it happened, he hadn't known how to cook or where the checkbook was. She was the best part of him, he said, and that was harder to find again than the checkbook. He told me about his son who was smart and stubborn and didn't come around anymore. He smiled and told me about his youngest daughter who used to live close and was his rock, but she had her own family now and left him missing her more often than not. He had Sally though, his little rat terrier who had slept between him and his wife, and who never chased his friendly squirrels.
We never had a conversation quite like that again, though he never failed to wave to me on my walks. I always waved back and paused my music, just in case. Sometimes he would chit-chat about the goings on of the neighborhood, but my restless feet kept me from standing there like the first time. Still, I kept my eye out for when his daughter's SUV would show up in his driveway and I'd smile, knowing he was enjoying her visit. I would sometimes pet Sally as she ran around in the yard, never setting more than a foot in the road. I grinned when I saw squirrels scurrying through his trees and hoped the geese wouldn't bother them. That was it, though. Waves, smiles, and a few kind thoughts to interrupt my own worries.
Last night, while he leaned on his cane under the glow of the streetlight, he waved me over to him. "Come see Sally," he told me. "This is her last night."
We both looked down at the little black and white terrier, and she wagged her tail. He told me about how it was, with her pancreas not working anymore. "She's sick, but she doesn't want me to know it. It's in her eyes, though," he said. "I can tell she knows she's sick by the way she looks at me." He told me she had never suffered a day in her eleven years, except for missing his wife when she died. He told me how they had saved her from going to the pound as a tiny puppy by scrounging up $50 to give a woman who couldn't afford to keep her. "It was meant to be," he said.
The little dog came to my hand and licked my fingertips. I saw what he meant about her eyes, but she wagged her tail anyway. I told him I was so sorry, but it felt hollow. Then I told him about losing Bella, and how I hadn't known her last night was her last. I told him I was glad for the weather, for the both of them. I didn't know what else to say. I still don't know what I should have said.
A car came by and I moved to the other side of the street. I called to him that I would pray for him and I would think of him and Sally the next day. "Come say goodbye to Sally one more time before you go," he said, beckoning me back to his side of the street. "She needs to say goodbye to all her friends." It wasn't until that last sentence that his voice ever cracked.
|Bella, my copilot|
That conversation definitely changed my night. It got me thinking about the blessing and curse of a last night, of knowing it. I still don't know if I was given a choice if I would trade the bliss of ignorance for the dread of dawn. I don't want to think about choices like that, but sometimes I may need to. I do know I'm glad I got to say goodbye to sweet Sally on her last night.
My neighbor will be on my mind. I don't know him well, but how well do you have to know someone before you can care about them? He's gone through so many last nights in his life, and I know that someday I will walk by his house and pause my music to wonder where he is. I probably won't know that the last time I wave to him will be the last. Probably neither will he.
If you're ever struggling to figure out what's important, either in your life or your creative endeavors, think about The Last Night. Think about what you (or a character) would do if you knew it, and think about what you would miss if you didn't know it. Think about what piddling worries would leak out your ear, and how much more you would appreciate the simple blessing of a clear night kissed with a warm spring breeze.