Monday, November 19, 2007

The Gift of Goodbye

Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
~ Matt 24:42

Nicky and Diana have been longtime neighbors, moving onto our block soon after we did in the 1980s. Their two children were about the same age as ours, and the kids often played together when they were small.

Our kids all grew up, diverging in many directions, into different schools and circles of friends, eventually into their adult lives. We four parents were all still there on the same block, waving hello as we drove past each other, stopping to chat occasionally on a pleasant evening, a comfortable and familiar presence in each other’s lives.

When Pete died of cancer in January 2006, Nicky and Diana were at his memorial Mass and came to my house, offering help--being good neighbors, as always. We talked now and then about having dinner together, but we never quite nailed down the details. We’ll get around to it, we all said.

One evening a few months ago, I asked Nicky about the construction activity in his driveway. He told me he was converting the garage into an apartment for his mother. I told him that was so good of him, and that we need to set an example for our own kids. “We’re going to be there one day,” I said.

During the past year, I saw Nicky and Diana often in the evenings, walking their dog in one direction as I walked Riga in the other. Jack, their dog, always wanted to play, while Riga always wanted to run him off. So, we couldn’t linger long during these encounters. Being human, I sometimes felt a little twinge, watching them walk as a couple, since that part of life is behind me. As we smiled our greetings and continued on our separate ways, I would remind myself of all the blessings I still have in life.

I last saw them this past Saturday evening as they took their stroll with Jack, and I with Riga. “Have a nice rest of the weekend,” I called after them.

Another longtime neighbor came to my door on Sunday afternoon, to deliver the terrible news that Nicky, and his mother, had died in a car accident a few hours earlier.

The garage apartment, lovingly constructed, is almost finished. But it was not meant to be. Nicky’s children, who have lost their father and their grandmother together, will never see him grow old and in need of their care. He will never “be there one day,” as I had told him.

We should have picked a date and had that talked-about dinner, months ago. Human beings are foolish that way. We let ourselves believe we have limitless banks of time, forgetting that we are mortal, each of us destined to die.

The tragedy that befell my neighbors yesterday has underscored to me the precious value of being able to say goodbye. As hard as it was to watch Pete die before my eyes, I prefer it to watching him drive off, never to come home. There is no easy way to lose one's spouse, but for me, it was better to share those last difficult moments together.

If I see Diana walking Jack on some future evening, I’ll feel a very different twinge. She does not have the solace of knowing she said all she wanted to say to her husband, aware that his minutes were slipping quickly away. She did not know, as Nicky slid into his car yesterday, that they had already said their final farewell.

I'm sorry that she didn't have the gift of goodbye. It's one of those life blessings I remind myself of, one for which I’ll always be grateful.