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It was his turn at the front of the line. He was a fit man, by appearances in his late seventies or early eighties. With his baseball cap and neatly belted pants he embodied the country working man of a past generation, now faded and starting to fray in his twilight years. His face was different, but the way he carried himself reminded me of Grandpa, dead now these nearly nine years.

He set his copy of my book on the table, and spoke with a quiet simplicity. “Thank you for making it not scary,” he said, and looked at me as if he meant every last bit of those words with all of his heart.

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The path to many places is long and winding, and such it was to reach the Big Flats Community Center this crisp Saturday morning in late April. Not physically winding–it is nearly a straight shot up the highway, a little over an hour drive. But the metaphorical path to bringing this occasion into being was long.

This morning of April 21st started last year when a friend of mine who sells gutters for a living made a sale to a lady who–he learned in the course of conversation–was in the business of helping elderly people adapt their homes for aging in place. Sue was her name, and besides her consulting work she also held speaking events on this topic. Noting how her work and speaking overlapped with mine, my friend mentioned to her (and later to me) that the two of us ought to discuss possibly working together.

It was an odd connection, but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to follow-up, so I emailed Sue. After a few exchanges it was agreed that attending one of her events was a good way for me to figure out if I thought we could work together–and she would view the video of one of my events, and read my book. So it was I ended up traveling to Chemung County and listening to one of her presentations. In the process I met agency facilitators for the Chemung County Office for the Aging, introduced myself and let them know what I was doing. Afterward, I followed up by email.

Sue and I agreed that there was opportunity to work together, but neither of us had anything planned at that time and we left it that if either of us had something that seemed to fit, we would let the other know. So far that has been the end of it. But months later one of the ladies from the Chemung Office for the Aging who I had met at Sue’s event contacted me by email and said they were interested in having me speak for them. They said sometime in November, but later it was pushed into the new year.

I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen at all. Things come up, then disappear. But in the new year they did get back to me, and we had a date set for April. This all came to fruitition a year after I first came to the Chemung Office for the Aging. A winding path indeed, from gutter sale to community center speaking event.

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The Chemung Office for the Aging used grant money to purchase a copy of my book for every attendee of the event. The old man slid his copy across the table toward me.

I nodded in response to his thanks for my presentation. “I try,” I said. “I hope people can see it that way. I don’t think it has to be terrifying,” I said, then add, “who should I sign book this for?”

“You can sign it for Ed. That’s me,” he said.

“Who are you caring for?” I ask. Sometimes this helps me know what other words to add if I know a bit of their story.

“Actually, it’s me,” he looks at me. “I’m the one. I’m in the early stages, but it’s coming.”

My world hiccups, the conversation jumping to an entirely different frame of reference. Often caregivers thank me for helping them see the disease better–more clearly, more in context, more hope filled. But rarely does someone with the disease come to an event, and even less often will one of them speak with me. I had presumed another caregiver stood thanking me, and now the raw confession told me I had spent the last hour and a half telling this man what his future held.

And he had said thank you.

“I’m not scared anymore,” he said again. “Thank you for the things you said. I don’t think it has to be bad.”

“No,” I agreed. “After what I went through with my grandpa, I think it is less scary than it was before for me. I feel–for myself–there are a lot worse ways to die.” The conversation felt at odd angles. We were talking about this man’s impending losses and eventual death, and he was being grateful to me. My emotions stirred, my heart wishing I could give him something–something more than what now felt like the pitiful amount I’ve given.

I hand him back my book.

He picks it up. “I want to read this. I want to learn, to understand what is coming. This book will be good.”

“It’s good you want to learn. It’s great!” My words feel feeble. I’m thinking simultaneously about how it is going to slip out of his mind and yet maybe some bit–somewhere–will stay, I hope. I’m wondering if he will even be able to finish my book. And I marvel at his attitude.

“We’re all given a life,” he says. “Something. Our own burden.”

I notice now how there is a hesitation in his speech, a small halting that a listener might not notice if they weren’t attentive, but I catch it.

“I just think this is mine,” he looks away. “And I’m going to live it. And it will be okay.”

I nod, and try to find words, fumbling things to say.

“Anyhow, thank you,” he finishes. We wish each other well, and he moves away and I must sign the book for the next person. I feel like I’ve been swept along prematurely, and I want to follow after the old man and–and–do something. Say something. Help him, be there for him in the years that are coming. But that’s not the way it works. He must walk on, and so must I. But I do hope I’ve given him something for his road, something he will be able to carry with him.

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A few more people down the line I have two elderly ladies standing in front of me. I think they might be sisters. They both clutch a copy of my book, standing side by side with a hint of tension in their shoulders, a weariness in their faces. The first hands me her book and says with the quickness of someone trying to force emotions back, “Make it out to Barb and Ed. That’s me and my husband. He has the disease. We’re going through this with him.”

I smile to myself as I sign her book. “I met your husband a few minutes ago,” I say. “I signed his book. We talked about his disease.”

“Oh! What did he say?”

The sisters look a mixture of surprised and curious.

“He said he isn’t afraid anymore. That it’s okay.”

“He said that?” Tears come to Barb’s eyes, a hand to her mouth. “Oh, you don’t know what that means to me. I can’t believe–He never talks about it–and we don’t know what he thinks. To hear that he said that–that alone makes today worth it. Thank you so much.”

We talk a little more, and I try to find encouraging words, but giving them her husbands words is all they wanted. All they needed.

Afterward, the community center empties and I am alone with my wife and our baby boy. My wife tells me how everyone made a fuss about the baby, but one man in particular. This old man came up to her three our four times while she was holding our baby. She thought the man might have had Alzheimer’s, because each time he stopped he said the same exact thing–as if he didn’t realize he had come a previous time. He is a beautiful boy. Cherish the moments, he said. These are precious days, and they are gone so quickly.

It was Ed.

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Life is a winding road, and none of us knows what lies ahead. I don’t know if I will ever have another speaking event. Maybe that bright April morning will be the last time I speak to an audience, the last time I stand up and open my heart and my mouth about hardness and brokenness and love and worth and what life means. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I am glad to have heard those words: “Thank you for making it not scary.”

It is what I have wanted to give.

Photo by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash

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A curiosity of mine is this: “How long do chicken memories last?” Actually, I have a lot of curiosities about chickens, wondering how their small minds work and process reality. But memory is one of them.

When we first had chickens they were allowed to roam free. But Debbie got tired of them pooping on the porch (as chickens are wont to do) and their constant scratching in her flower gardens. So we built a chicken fence and locked them away. Before they would come down to the back of the house and star in through the windows of the French doors, led by our rooster Petunia who is the worst food grubber of them all. After the fence went up, the chickens had to develop other routines, and other places to lounge besides the back door.

That change was a year ago, but I’ve since wondered how much our rooster Petunia remember of his old haunts. Well, today it was a warm later winter day and though the snow was on the ground I left the door to the chicken yard open so that our young cat Munchkin could go exploring. Well, it wasn’t too long before the chickens were heading out the gate in the opposite direction. And Petunia hurried on down to the back door and peered in through the window. A year of time and his chicken brain still remembered where he used to go.

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Daylight ebbs dark
windowed outside fading
mirror reflective

Voices murmur awaiting satiation
deep bass drones, propounds
lullabying my weariness,

The meeting is busy
behind me, with social advancement
plans for their dog park

Money and risk
concerns of the night
land leased for a dollar must be policed

Use at your own risk, make the list
security cameras for safety
examined membership cards

The lacking will be asked to leave
important community service; make laws, find dues, escape risk
above all: keep unwanted dogs from the dog park

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Tis the season
of crinkle leaf
windy branch dark
against slate sky.

Here clouds roll
air bites cold
breathing woody smoke
and frosty damp.

Life huddles
squinty-eyed
and misty breath
waiting for spring.

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I needed a better coat, something with a little more class than the country-coarse I wear around the yard. So I reached into the back of the closet and pulled out something respectable, stored and unused for years, waiting for just this time.

Later, I discovered the pockets weren’t empty.

The coat was pale grey, so pale it was almost white. I don’t know if the coat was ever used much, but I wasn’t its first owner. It was an inheritance from Grandpa.

There is an odd little thrill wrapped up in finding things in the pockets of second hand clothing. I remember the sensation from a few lucky finds in second hand clothes brought into the house. It feels a bit like finding treasure, and a bit like finding the remnants of a past civilization. Much like finding scribbled notes in a book, the pocket discoveries are memorials to those who came before. They are fun when you can imagine the things found belong to someone living, someone still carrying on their adventures somewhere else in the world. The finding is more melancholy when you know the person who left the tokens is dead.

Both front pockets were full. In the right I pulled out a small ziplock bag with a few packets of sugar substitute and two match packets from a grocery story no longer in business. There was also one crumpled paper towel. The other pocket held another booklet of matches, more paper towels neatly folded, yellow with age, and a few tissues. In the bottom of the pocket was one piece of peppermint candy.

The matchbooks and folded paper towels brought the surprise and ache of memory. This was grandpa’s treasure, carefully stored away over a decade ago. Back when he still smoked the matches were a regularly necessity. When I was little he would let me blow the match out after he had lit the cigarette. The sugar was in case it was needed for coffee, the candy because a man needed that for in a pinch. And the paper towels folded for use as tissues was the perennial mark of Grandpa.

Memories that I go looking for don’t catch me by surprise, and the act of deliberately digging up the past provides its own form of preparation, which is a bit of a defense. But unexpected memories stumbled upon, the past preserved as if it had only happened yesterday and so bridging nearly two decades as if it were only hours ago can give a strange hurt made poignant with its unexpected freshness.

Ah, hello Grandpa. No, I hadn’t forgotten you. Life moves so quick, but strange how you are still so freshly here.

 

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I mostly avoid putting stuff on Facebook. Maybe because it feels like too many social sphere’s overlap and things I want to share with one sphere I’m not interested in sharing with another and I’m too lazy to edit who sees what so I just don’t share.

Also, my amusing updates would mostly only be appreciated by myself and a select few.

Case in point. I almost just posted the following to my FB wall: “My butt is tired.”

This statement actually says a lot but most people on FB would not understand.

My butt is tired, but after some therapy I might go out and do some more lawn mowing.

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Juliet is one of the new chickens we were given. The flock was depleted by the ravages of a wild animal, with only three survivors. Five added hens have brought the company back to a better number.

Additions to a flock can sometimes be rough, but this time everyone has adapted well. Juliet made the transition best. She has the combination of smarts, and boldness. She also likes to sit on laps.

Today is warm so all the chickens are out and enjoying the approach of spring. They do find comfort and security in numbers.

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Only the most hardest of plants have begun to grow outside. Spring has started to stir, but its full glory is still weeks away. Inside, the vibrant splash of yellow is a cheerful reminder of what is coming.

I have an itch to work the earth, but not yet.

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The darkness of winter has passed. A vigorous March wind pulls the clouds across the sky. It isn’t warm, but the sun calls me to come out and rake the yard. Maybe I will after I finish painting the closet.

An autumn wind is the herald of winter’s coming chill. A spring wind calls forth all sorts of activity.

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The hours creep on past midday and I glance out the window. Drizzle has been the friend of the morning, and the unseasonable warmth of this late March weather has helped chase away much of the remaining snow. The fog across the valley catches my attention. The dreary landscape rises from field to trees and ends in a wall of gray. Sky and land are lost there and it is somehow grim and tantalizingly curious.

I know the hill is not so very tall, but in the moment of imagination those trees could keep going up and up to a high mountain peak. There might be dragons there.

Fog threatens and invites, and seems it will never leave until it suddenly does. The heavy cloak is a waiting that will soon pass.

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