My neighbor Ray across the street is 88 years old. I mean my neighbor in Michigan actually, and he sort of isn’t really my neighbor right now because he is staying in a nursing home, but nonetheless I think of him as my neighbor Ray from across the street. Two weeks ago I saw Ray’s son in the driveway so I ran over to say hello and see what was going on over there. That was when I found out about Ray staying in the nursing home. Since it was late in the afternoon and I had to leave early the next morning I told his son that I would head over there and visit Ray next time I was out. We say stuff like that a lot. Things like “We’ll get together soon” or “I’ll give you a call” or “I should shoot them off an email” or “I’m gonna send them a card” or the famous “I’ll look you up next time I’m in town”… I’ve said most of those things at one point or another over the years. This time for some reason it was a bit more poignant and I felt a little bit more compelled to follow through.
You see Ray has always been a “doer”. From the time I met him in 2000 he was always very active. Even at the ripe old age of 78. He actually called himself the “young” man on the block compared to a couple of other old timers on our row on Merchant Street. Ray would launch his own boat, work in his own yard, drive his own riding lawn mower and he even worked out at the YMCA at least 3 or 4 days a week. He just couldn’t sit still. He re-married in his late seventies and took a few trips to the Caribbean and a few cruises with his new wife. I always admired his zest for life and enjoyed many a conversation with him in my front yard or his.
Last year Ray had a stroke. A minor one mind you. It did slow him down a bit, but only a bit. Last Summer I would go over to his house and find him kneeling in the back yard planting some plants or working on his new brick patio with his son. He couldn’t even stand up on his own and had to garner our help to get up but it didn’t slow down his will to remain a “doer”.
I’m a bit of a “doer” myself. Always on my feet. Always on the go. Always taking care of things and trying to get 13 hours of work done in an 8 hour day. Part of me feels like that will always be the way and part of me gets tired and wonders what it might be like if I couldn’t do that anymore. And then I saw Ray yesterday. All day long I knew I was going to go there. The roads were ice covered because of the lake effect snow. We had a number of other errands to run. I wanted to have some chill time and watch a movie or take a nap. There were a million reasons that I might have de-prioritized driving to Bridgman and spending time at a nursing home, but deep down inside I knew that it had to happen.
After our Michigan City run I told my girlfriend that I wanted to drive to Bridgman and visit Ray and I told her that I would drop her off at the house to do some other things in the meantime. Much to my pleasure she said, “I’ll be happy to go with you if you want me to.” I had baked a batch of homemade brownies the night before and she said. “Why don’t you stop at home and get the brownies first.” I told her I already had them in the backseat. I guess I always knew.
As we pulled up to the front of the nursing home I realized that I couldn’t even remember Ray’s last name. Maybe I’m getting senile too, or maybe I just hadn’t paid close enough attention in the past. As luck would have it, when we walked in the front door Ray was sitting in a wheelchair in the front lobby with a handful of other residents. We walked up and said, “Hey Ray, great to see you!” He looked up, took a minute to get his bearings and figure out who we were, and the he said “What in the world are you doing here?” I told him we had come out to visit him of course… and then he burst into tears.
I put my hand on the back of Ray’s left hand which he had perched on his knee and I told him it was okay. I told him that I felt badly for him having to be in this situation but that I was really happy to see him. It was all I could think to say at that moment in time and it somehow seemed to work well. We spent the next hour or so pushing Ray around the hallways of his new “home” at his request and he showed us the bird cage, the dining hall, the library, yet he somehow couldn’t seem to find his own room. After we had explored nearly all of the corridors of the nursing home we came down to the end of a hallway and I saw his name on the door plate. His first AND his last name and I vaguely remembered them both for the first time in many years, but it really didn’t matter. We were on a first name basis for so long and we had reached a new level of intimacy that transcended names after the last hour.
When our time together was done (for now), we wound up back in Ray’s room and the caretaker stopped in to see how things were going. Ray reminded the caretaker that he needed to help him to get ready to go home when he got his release later that night, same as he had told us a number of times in our hour together. The very skilled caretaker then said, “Your wife paid for another night so you get to stay for dinner.” After looking confused for a minute Ray seemed to accept the answer and returned to the moment and thanked us again for visiting.
We spent most of our ride home to New Buffalo in silence and we tried to figure out what type of music was appropriate for the mood of the moment. We stopped at another friend’s house and told him we were going to stay in for the night, cook some dinner and watch a movie. What on many other nights would have seemed to be a mundane Saturday evening alone at home somehow took on very special meaning on this particular night. The movie was perfect, the dinner was perfect, the phone call to family members (respectively) was perfect, the couch was perfect and to sleep in a bed in a real” home” was priceless.
I’m hoping that my buddy Ray gets to enjoy that pleasure again sometime in the future. It may be a long shot, but you see Ray is a “doer” and somehow I think if anybody can make it happen, he will. I’ll be watching out the front window and I’m thinking someday I’ll see you sitting in the window Ray, my neighbor from across the street….