the hardest goodbye

It wasn’t the last goodbye…just the hardest one.

Every once and a while we tried to talk to dad about moving out of his house. Whenever we brought it up, he’d end the conversation almost before it began. He was adamant: he was going to stay in his house and he was going to be fine.

When we finally did have a conversation about it, it was too late. My brother asked dad if he’d ever consider selling his house to live somewhere smaller…a place a little easier to deal with. This time, his face brightened when my brother posed the question, which surprised me – surprised all three of us.

He agreed right away and said he had a great idea. We looked at each other sideways, trying not to make direct eye contact. This seemed a little too good to be true. Here’s what his plan consisted of: he’d sell his house and use the money to buy an apartment house. He’d live in one of the apartments, and HE, (the ninety-four-year-old with dementia,) WOULD BE THE MANAGER OF THE WHOLE PLACE. When he was in his fifties, he’d been involved in building a small apartment house as well as some condominiums. So dad knew some things about rentals and construction.

My brother, to his credit, calmly asked what dad would do if someone’s washing machine broke down. My father simply said he’d call the repairman – a perfectly logical reply. The problem being that at this point dad really couldn’t figure out how to use a phone, let alone find a phone number, or read one for that matter. The conversation quickly deteriorated. It was clear we weren’t going to have a rational conversation about dad moving anywhere. We knew we weren’t going to be able to come up with a plan and talk it over with him. Our hearts sank.

We couldn’t keep him safe any longer. Yes it was about his safety, but it had gotten to the point where we finally, clearly saw that his behavior could potentially cause serious harm to others. This had been true for some time…but one last incident finally made it clear to all of us. It would of course be a tragedy if dad was injured, but if someone else – a caregiver, or a stranger was injured because of dad’s erratic behavior? – No. That’s when I knew in my heart that even though the thought of moving him out of his home was heart wrenching, the risk of leaving him there was clearly worse. This was the first time I was faced with a problem where I could only find heartbreak – as hard as I looked there was no light in the tunnel we were approaching.

The last straw came one day when he and his caregiver were waiting at a busy intersection. By this time, his vision was all but gone, and his hearing was not much better. He began to step into the street and she tried to stop him. He refused to wait; he hated being told what to do and stepped right in front of a moving car. Miraculously, the car was able to stop, and no one was hurt. For this dedicated and loyal young woman, this was the end: she knew she couldn’t keep him safe. It was too dangerous for everyone. He’d done a lot of crazy, dangerous things before this…we all knew our luck, our time, had simply run out.

People told us not to discuss it with him…that it was too late. So we did not speak of it to him beforehand…at all. It was crushing to consider doing it this way: move him from his home of sixty years without telling him? Without notice? Just drop him off somewhere? All of the reasons they gave us made sense…intellectually: the trauma of the conversation could send him into who-knows-what kind of behavior – yes, that was true; my main concern was that he would just up and run-away. He was strong, healthy and walked a couple of miles every day. I could see him deciding to just head out to some place else and getting lost…injured…or worse.

By this time, none of us were living near him. We were left with planning this momentous, life-changing, life-shattering move…over the phone. My sister now was the closest, living just north of the Bay Area. She’d gone down to L.A. to look at some possibilities and then I flew down to look at them with her. It was staggeringly impossible to imagine him living in any of the places we looked at.

We finally chose a place, and honestly, it was only because oddly enough we’d just learned that our aunt…dad’s “baby” sister was also moving into a residential facility. We gave in, to what we knew to be false reasoning: “If they’re moving her there…maybe it will be fine for dad.” We knew it wasn’t true…but honestly we had no other feasible options. We had somehow convinced the management to actually give us an entire week ahead of the date of dad’s move-in. After being faced with 48-hour deadlines, this suddenly seemed to be a luxurious amount of time.

Back up north at my home, I paced back and forth with thoughts churning around and around in my mind – “How could we NOT tell him? How could I not tell him? How could I show up at his house with this plan all ready to go and just drop him off with no explanation?” The thought of it made me sick to my stomach. I knew what that house meant to him; knew what his independence meant to him. Over time, we’d already slowly but surely gotten him to allow caregivers first to visit every day, and eventually he allowed them to stay with him around the clock. Between the incredible creativity of two dedicated young women, and with help from each of us kids, we’d been able to extend the time he was in his home – but that time was over. We all knew it.

As I prepared to make the heartbreaking journey back down to Los Angeles, I took to talking it all out with dad – in my mind. It wasn’t even a conscious decision; it was just all I could do. I told him everything…why we’d finally come to the decision, where he’d be living, what it was like, the good, the bad…I just kept talking to him. Over and over that week as I wrestled with it all, I begged whoever might be listening, to somehow help this stubborn old man know that we were plain out of options.

I arrived on a Saturday, joining my brother and sister at dad’s house. We planned to move him on Monday. He was no fool – even if he did have dementia – he knew we were up to something. It was rare that the three of us ever showed up at the same time.

What we were up to was that we had come to move him: out of his home and into Assisted Living, but not any Assisted Living. We had to move him into a place that was termed “Secure”, meaning a place where basically, he’d be a prisoner. He would be locked in: he wouldn’t be able to get out without assistance from the staff or someone in his family.

It was Sunday now. Dad and I sat on the couch next to each other, the couch that had been his domain every evening when he came home from work, and now at age 94 and after sixty years, it was where my father spent most of his waking hours. The couch had always been his couch…mom and we three kids had to make due with the loveseat and whatever other seating was available, so it was with some sense of honor and also a bit of trepidation that I found myself sitting next to him.

The weather was uncharacteristically gentle; soft early-afternoon light came through the three windows just above my father’s small world, there on that sofa. It was warm enough that the front door was open and cool enough that there was no need for air conditioning. A quiet breeze inhaled and exhaled through the screen door. My brother and sister were off running errands, so we had this time together. We sat there and for some reason, we were silent.

Someone walked by the house talking on their cell phone, loudly of course, and interrupted our reverie there on the couch. Out of that immense silence came this from my father,

“So how much are you getting for the house?”

The question jarred me out of our solitude.

“We’re not selling it dad. It’s your house.”

We sat for a few moments and then,

“How much do you think you could get for it?”

“Realtors leave their business cards all the time – people want to move into this neighborhood – but it’s your house. Do you want to sell it?”

“How much do you think we could get for it?”

“We haven’t talked to anyone, but I think the last assessment was about $500,000…isn’t that insane?”

He let out one of his long, slow whistles. He and mom bought it, brand new, in 1947 for $14,000.

“That’s a lot of money. What are you gonna to do with it?”

“It’s your house dad. If you sold it, what would you do with the money?”

“If we sold it, would I still live here?”

“No……if we sold it, you’d have to live somewhere else.”

“Where would I live?”

I could not believe we were having this conversation. I had to keep telling myself, “Just follow his lead.”

“Well…we’d find a good place for you to live.”

He shook his head slowly. His whole body shifted. It was a small, subtle movement, but he had just slumped.

Again he shook his head and whispered, “It’s too much.”

“The house?”

“It’s too much.”

In that moment I saw that my father, now almost blind from macular degeneration and partly deaf – although he thought he could hear just fine – surveyed his home, his kingdom, in the same way that bats see in the dark. Somehow he used a kind of echolocation to monitor the comings and goings and now, even though he didn’t have to actually get up and walk around to do it – it was still too much.

As a young man, as the man of the house, he developed a whole routine that he went through every single night before he went to bed. He’d start with latching the chain on the front door and then he’d turn off the porch light. Then the swish of the curtains closing, next he’d pull the shades down. Moving into the kitchen he’d turn off the light, cut across the dining room then head down two steps into the den that he helped build onto the back of the house in the ‘60’s. He’d lock the back door, check that all the windows were closed and locked and then pull the curtains. Turning off the living room lights as he passed them, he made his way to his bedroom. Every night for most of his adult life he’d made sure we were all safe, and now, even thinking about it…it was “too much”.

“It’s a lot to take care of isn’t it?” He nodded slowly in agreement.

Somehow it had happened, after all. It seemed that he’d been able to hear the truth that I’d been speaking to him from my cabin far away. He knew it was time. And even though by the next day, the day we were to move him, he would have forgotten all of what we’d just spoken, I knew that somewhere in his heart he’d heard that truth, and, that he was ready. I also knew that he forgave me, forgave us. Still, I knew that tomorrow was going to be the most excruciating day of my life, of all our lives.

I was right – about everything.

Our “story” was that we needed to move him out temporarily in order to do the repairs on the house. Recently there’d been a leak in the bathroom that had overflowed into the hallway. Water on the old hardwood floors beneath the wall-to-wall carpeting had caused those extremely dry pieces of oak flooring to buckle. It was just one more possibility for dad or someone else to get hurt. It was our “story”…and we loved that there was actually some truth to it. In the end, it didn’t change anything about how it all went…but somehow that little bit of truth made the bitter pill of the rest of the untruths a little easier to swallow.

My job on our moving team was coming up with a floor plan. How could we fit his favorite furniture…his old friends…into his room in a way that would yield him comfort, familiarity, and also be open enough so that he would not trip and fall? In his own home, he knew the layout of his furniture like the back of his hand. A new place would be one big “tripping hazard”. I measured the furniture we chose and drew it out on graph paper. It was a wonderful mental distraction.

Our plan was that my sister and I would take dad out to lunch, and the new restaurant we’d “found” was actually the dining room of the Assisted Living residence. While we were eating, and taking our sweet time of it, our brother was directing a moving company to pick up the appointed furniture from dad’s house and place it in his new room according to my floor plan. And then, my brother was going to join us for the rest of our meal. It sounds insane now as I write it – it also sounded insane as we planned it. How does the saying go? “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” We tried to make the best out of our act of complete tyranny. But we all knew that whatever our best was – it was going to be heart crushing.

It was getting to be late in the afternoon. Dad had impeccable sensitivity to the sun’s movement toward the ending of daylight and was getting antsy. He wanted to leave and go home. That’s when my brother broke the news to him.

“Let us show you your new room, dad. This is where you’re gonna stay while they do the repairs on your house.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Come on,” he cursed at us, “Let’s go home.”

This was a plea for help. We were his last hope and, we were his jailers. Somewhere he knew this.

“No dad, it’s really nice. It’ll be much nicer here. They’ll be running saws and hammering at your house. It’s gonna be a mess over there. Let’s go see where you’ll be staying.”

Dad’s face was tight; his eyes narrowed. He looked at me, and then my sister.

“Quit fooling around. It’s time to go,” he said in his gruff “quit the bullshit” manner.

We were running out of time…out of daylight. His macular degeneration meant that when he looked out on the world it was always kind of dim. Now, with the sun preparing to set, in his world it was close to dark. He also experienced what’s called “Sundowner’s Syndrome” which causes people to become quite anxious and fearful as nightfall approaches. With the combination of his failing vision and Sundowner’s, on top of his wanting to JUST GO HOME, he was beginning to look and behave like a trapped wild animal.

He got up to leave the table, but he didn’t know where to go. He couldn’t see how to get out. My brother again attempted to reason with him. They moved out into the courtyard. He was trying to show dad what a nice “backyard” they had. There were tables and chairs and my brother motioned for dad to sit with him at one of the tables so they could talk.

“WHAT THE HELL’S GOING ON? TAKE ME HOME.”

My brother had been raised by this man; a man who lived by the rule of Reason. But Reason didn’t work any more. Now a line of Reason just bounced right off dad. There was no reasoning with him – there was no Reason in the land of his father. It was excruciating.

I left them going at it and my sister followed me. We were both weeping. This was more brutal than I ever could have imagined; could’ve let myself imagine. I heard dad raise his voice, and then my brother, too. I was afraid dad might take a swing at him. Daylight was fading fast.

Again I heard,

“DAMN IT! TAKE ME HOME. WHAT IS THIS SHIT? JUST TAKE ME HOME!”

He was chilled and completely exhausted – beyond exhaustion. At home, he would have been heading to bed by now. My sister and I wandered off again to give them some space, and when we returned to the patio they were gone. We found the two of them in dad’s room.

Dad was sitting on the couch, on “his” couch. His only son, his oldest child, his pride and joy, sat at the other end. Dad’s head was down. His body was slumped. His eyes were closed. He was completely broken. All the fight had gone out of him. The feisty old man was no more. Soft light shining out from the two lamps we’d brought from his living room would’ve been comforting in another situation. For dad, it was dark; he couldn’t see us…physically, but worse, it was dark because his children had betrayed him. He’d been trapped, tricked. Every once and a while he’d lift his head and look toward one of us and say longingly,

“Come on. Let’s go home.”

By now, all of us were completely drained. My brother, just like us, was heartbroken, but he was much less comfortable being anywhere else but in the land of Reason. He was tired and he didn’t know what else to say. Now when dad would repeat his only request, my brother began to lose patience, still couldn’t quite face the depth of the truth that there was no reasoning with this man who had taught him the skill in the first place.

We had to leave him – he needed to go to bed. The rest of his life had to begin and it couldn’t while we were still there. I stood before him and he, a broken twig of an old man, looked up at me. His eyes were dull, unseeing, and unable to bear the possibility that we actually might be leaving him there. I reached out toward him and he slid his hands into mine. They were cold and lifeless.

I bent toward him. “I love you dad. It’s time for us to go. You need to go to sleep now.”

One of the gifts of dementia is that even traumatic experiences sometimes, in the presence of great grace, can quickly melt into the Great Forgetting. Here’s a story about the first couple of days in dad’s new life:  no stopping him 

tangerines, squirrels and angels

It was pointless to ask my father direct questions about anything of substance. Subtlety was required – a slow, gentle curve of a question – never approach straight on. Anything I learned about him that was at all personal came only on his terms…when he was ready, and it always came quick…like a shooting star. With a blink of the eyes, it was gone. It’s a hard way to get to know someone, but in the end, deeply meaningful, because the stories come in precious and unexpected little nuggets.

Sometimes dad would join me as I sought refuge out in the backyard of his home – the place that had embraced my entire childhood. Along the west-facing fence was a row of Liquid Amber trees that generously gave us relief from the scorching sun. The trees grew just below the power lines that crisscrossed every backyard, up and down the street. Mourning doves perched on the wires, singing their gentle chorus, gratefully calmed the sparks that often crackled between dad and I. It seemed we were “striker” and “match” for each other, although thankfully, after more than 40 years, the friction between us had finally begun to wear down. A slight, cool breeze calmed the fiery afternoon. Two dark green lawn chairs with woven, plastic webbing, that had been in the backyard as long as I could remember, provided us with familiar seating.

We sat side by side, in front of a tangerine tree that was planted to mark my birth. Currently, it was at the center of dad’s venomous war with the squirrels, over ownership of the sweet and sour, deliciously juicy fruit: a battle they waged every season. The squirrels’ method of devouring dad’s favorite fruit was, according to my father, a personal affront. They’d jump down out of the taller Liquid Ambers nearby and sit at the very top of the tangerine tree, harvesting only the best sun–ripened fruit. That would have been crime enough, but their technique was unforgivable, and brilliant. They’d gnaw a little hole in the perfectly ripe fruit and then suck the entire contents out, leaving the empty, round, skin intact. Then they’d just toss the empty fruits, which lay scattered all around the base of the tree. From a distance they looked like whole tangerines, and I’m sure that dad, with his failing eyesight, had been fooled many times.

I imagined the squirrels safely up in their roost watching dad curse as he found another empty shell of his favorite, late afternoon snack. This was their eternal feud, but dad had a plan. There was a big stack of old aluminum-framed screens discarded when the original wooden windows had been replaced. He subscribed to the belief that nothing should ever be thrown out…so they’d been stacked in the back shed behind the garage for about ten years. He had this amazing and complex scheme that involved suspending the screens above the tangerine tree so the squirrels couldn’t jump down to it from above.

I told dad that I thought he was actually training the squirrels to perform ever more sophisticated aerial feats, adding, “They’ll just climb around to the underside of the screens and carry on with their plundering.” He snorted his disagreement to me at about the same time that a squirrel with impressive agility, demonstrated my point by climbing up a large tree trunk backwards, with its head pointing down and bushy tail jabbing upward, all the while scolding dad for ever considering that he might come out the victor. Dad just muttered and waved his hand as if to dismiss both the squirrel and me.

In the midst of all this talk of tangerines and squirrels, dad suddenly veered off into an entirely different conversation, stating that my mother was an agnostic and he was an atheist. “Where did THAT come from?” I wondered. I restrained myself from turning to directly face him as he brought up such an intensely personal subject. Instead, I listened as unobtrusively as possible. It was so rare to have this kind of conversation with him – even intense listening could cause him to clam up and change the subject.

I spoke softly…“If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re certain there is no God? How can you be sure about it? How do you know for sure?” After a long pause, my father, born in 1914, told me that it happened when he was in his twenties – when he became aware of what was going on in Germany, then spreading throughout much of Europe, ahead of World War II. In a tone I’d never heard from him he replied, “A lot of us felt it,” – “us” being American Jews, born of Jewish immigrants who’d fled Eastern Europe during the pogroms. He told me that initially he felt betrayed by a God that would allow such slaughter, and this betrayal turned into a certainty when he learned that it was happening again: such destruction of life and property proved to him that there couldn’t possibly be a God. As he described this shift in his belief, I felt his heartbreak, his utter sense of abandonment, and his unequivocal knowing that he was completely on his own; a belief he lived by, ever after. Based on the beliefs…or maybe more accurately, non-beliefs of my parents, I was left on my own to develop any sense of religious or spiritual faith that I might yearn for. And I did…I had a deep yearning for such guidance.

Over the years, as I watched my father turn down help again and again, I came to see that it was the only way for him, if he was to continue with his conviction that he had to “go it alone”. There was no one else but him: no one here, which I can imagine stemmed from the fact that at the age of eleven, and being the eldest boy at home, he became the male head of the household after his father died of tuberculosis, and, there was no God above that was going to help him either. I also slowly realized that he saw any acceptance of help, as an admission of vulnerability that he could not allow, could not bear.

Being the child most like him in this regard, I was a seasoned student of this mindset, having grown up in his household under his stern rule. As a young adult, I’d become quite skilled at the very same approach to life: the belief that I could, and moreover had to, carry whatever came my way, all on my own.

A few months after my 31st birthday, I was in a car accident so horrific that when the first Emergency Responder showed up and found me wandering around crazed and barefoot in the darkness, soaking wet from the pouring rain, he looked at me and then at my car and said, “Whoever was in that car…they didn’t make it. There’s no way anyone could live through that.” But I was the one in that car. And I did make it.

It took a lot of years for me to shed that big, old, shell of a belief I inherited from my proud father that demanded, “I gotta go it alone”. I realized that clearly, the fact that I did live through that accident meant I DID NOT GO IT ALONE. It was true what that First Responder said – there’s no way someone could live through that – but I did, somehow. I had help – and lots of it. They were there. The angels. To this day, I don’t exactly know what I mean by angels…but it’s the word that always comes. I can tell you for sure that in the midst of that one conversation, as dad and I were taunted by tangerine-marauding squirrels, it never dawned on me that I would ever wonder if angels might be looking after my father.

__

In the years following my mother’s death, my father just kept making adjustments…as he’d done his entire life. Whatever fate fell to him, he would meet it head on. And so it was with becoming a widower; figuring out how to live in his home, alone, after sharing it with his wife and three children for fifty-six years. As I watched dad navigate his way through the last years of his life, I slowly began to realize he was clearly surrounded by them – angels. He was approaching his nineties, his vision was declining rapidly, and so was his hearing. Dementia was hanging around, just on the edge of his world, showing up now and again.

Having given up driving, dad did a lot of walking. He lived just four doors down from a busy street that he used as his main thoroughfare. One day, returning from a trip to the bank, he misjudged the height of a curb and instead of climbing back up to the sidewalk after crossing the street; he tripped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete. There he was, laid out on the ground, inches from where cars were making right turns. One such driver saw my father there on the sidewalk and pulled over. As he approached, my father ever on the alert, shouted as menacingly as a skinny old man could,

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” fearing that he was about to be mugged or attacked, when he was down and seemingly helpless.

The driver leaned over to help dad up.

“I SAID GET AWAY FROM ME!” dad hurled, as blood ran down his face.

The man approached dad again, who took a swing at him, even as he lay on the ground.

Finally something let loose and he allowed the man to help him up, but then he turned again, preparing to throw a punch in case he tried to take advantage of dad. This angel offered dad a ride home, but was vigorously refused. As the adrenaline began to wear off, he felt the chill of exhaustion sink deep into his bones and softened to the man. Eventually my father agreed that he could use a little help walking home, but refused to get into the stranger’s car. Disoriented at first, dad wasn’t even sure where he lived. Luckily he was only two blocks from his home, and in the end, recognized his dear old house at 5219. He allowed the man to walk him almost to the front porch and then sent him away.

Miraculously, dad didn’t break any bones, or suffer a concussion. He did have some bruises, but all in all, how was that possible at his age? Later on he would recount the part that he was most proud of: he remembered how to roll into a fall, instead of bracing himself with his hands. He called it “the tuck and roll,” and sang it out slow like a chorus from some old favorite song. It came from his training as a fighter in his youth; both on the streets and in the gymnasiums in his rough and tumble 1920’s Detroit neighborhood. With Jews on one street, Italians on the next, Irish around the corner – fist fighting was a way of life.

There are many stories about my father in the last years of his life that are true mysteries…so many “near misses” where he could have been terribly injured or even lost his life, due to his fierce sense of independence which demanded that he do everything for himself.

Who helped dad, who helped me – that is the Great Mystery. I don’t need to understand it all, and at this point in my life, what I say is, YES: the angels come, whether or not you believe in…anything.

no lights on at Jack’s

After I posted this place where we live I learned more about Jack. If you haven’t read it yet, click on the link so you can meet him.

I always drive in and out of town on Jack’s street because it goes right along the water – the majestic Puget Sound. My old route was a little shorter, more direct, but I realized that my “short-cut” was depriving me of the opportunity to see the water…maybe a view of a sunset …maybe the moonrise. And, as it turns out…I would’ve missed the pumpkins!

Every fall as we approach Halloween I begin to look for pumpkins on his porch railing. First there are one or two, then maybe five or six and soon enough the whole railing’s filled with big, orange globes and the carving begins. Passing by, we see only their backsides…but we know, we hope, that day-by-day, these pumpkins are getting carved by Jack and his bunch of carver-friends. We can’t wait to see them lit on Halloween.

By the time Halloween’s come and gone, I’ve been checking out Jack’s railing for a month or more; it’s part of my daily ritual. Something changed this time…even after the Jack-O-Lanterns were gone…I made a point to look at Jack’s place every time I went by. I had a sense that Jack was, as one of his buddy’s had said, “gettin’ up there”. I was just checking up on him. Not stopping by…just noticing if his light was on or off, and wishing him “Goodnight”. At one point I realized that the light was out every night, no matter how early in the evening it was. The shades were always drawn on the windows…there was a big load of brush clippings in the back of his pick-up truck and the truck never got emptied. It finally came to me…“Jack’s gone.”

I knew his longtime friends and carving assistants would let us know if Jack had passed away – no word about that. He definitely wasn’t living in his little house any longer. Where was he? All this came to me with that one thought, “Jack’s gone.” I began to send my “Goodnight, Jack” out to him, wherever he was.

A few months passed and I wrote This Place Where We Live. I shared it with some of the folk who’ve been close to him; that’s when I learned more about his story. Just a few weeks after Halloween it became clear to his helpers that due to his failing health, both physical and mental, he wasn’t able to take care of himself well enough to live on his own…and if he didn’t get more constant support we might lose him completely. Things moved quickly then, as they do, once a family’s arrived at that knowing, and Jack now lives close to one of his siblings. I hear that he’s not really sure where he is, and wants to go home, except he’s not sure where home is.

One of Jack’s friends wrote me…

“Sadly, Jack hasn’t carved in a few years,” and shared that Jack’s friends helped out with all the pumpkins. That includes the one that most people around here remember as THE BEST when they talk about Jack’s pumpkins. That’s the one with the Monster House towering above Jack’s little house…the one that was lit and placed on the side railing facing that big, new house.

“I carved all the Big-House-Next-Door pumpkins. Jack was horrified with me as he would never be that tough, even though he felt the same way.

Jack didn’t even want to get pumpkins this year but I knew he’d regret the decision as soon as the night came.

He was adamant about me taking him to Costco for the full size (candy) bars.”

“If I have my way there will always be pumpkins there.”

This year, the pumpkins were lined up on his railing, carved by his dear friends, lit every night, and blown out at the end of the evening by yet more folks who couldn’t imagine Halloween without Jack and his pumpkins.

If you’re around next year, stop by Jack’s and help out with the carving. It’ll make Jack smile that rascally smile of his, wherever he is. We miss Jack, and he misses us. If you’d like to send him a note, or share a story about him, include it in a “Comment” at the end of this post and I’ll make sure he gets it.

this place where we live

I got back to town as Halloween was winding down. It gets pretty riled up “downtown” for the kids, and then it’s all over by about 8 o’clock. I took a slight detour to see if my old friends were around…I heard they were moving back any day now. No lights on at their place so I headed for home, which took me right by “the store”.

Built in the 1920’s, it’s gone through several owners, and still is a hub for our town. As I rolled by, in the glow of the single light bulb that illuminates its entrance, stood just the couple I’d been searching for. There they were with their 8-month old son and their dog, Ernie. All dressed up for Halloween, their son was a Cheeseburger and Ernie was a Hot Dog. Just inside the store were two more couples, each with their young children. These three families hold a special place in my heart – what a gift to see them all at this moment.

Standing right inside the door like the Store Greeter, another one of the children, a beaming little one a few months shy of two-years-old, was wearing something like coveralls; only they were made to look like a man’s business suit with a dark blue suit, white shirt and red neck tie. Once they put the goofy outfit on her, both her parents laughed out loud and shouted, “Donald Trump!” They gave her the perfect hairdo and a “Trump for President” button and she was the showstopper. The third young one, a 2½-year-old boy with face paint that looked like it’d been through a couple of tearful moments, was wearing a wonderful black velvet cape. Standing there together, we were a part of the Village that we’re becoming.

My friends invited me to wander up the hill with them to go check out “Jack’s Pumpkins” – it’d been several years since they’d been. Jack is a beloved Halloween legend here. He lives in a small, old house that was probably built in the 1930’s. It has a nice, wide, front porch which recently had some work done on it so the porch is back to being mostly level, instead of being a crazy up-and-down “House of Mystery” front porch, which I have to admit, did add to the Halloween effect. It’s only recently that I’ve had any personal interactions with Jack, but I’ve known about “Jack’s Pumpkins” ever since I moved here in 1997.

A couple of weeks before Halloween, pumpkins start showing up on the porch railing – all shapes and sizes. First there are just a couple, but over time, the whole railing is filled with pumpkins and sometimes there are so many that even the railing on the side of the porch gets filled. When I first moved here, I overheard a local telling some visitors who were all having lunch at “the store”, about what went on at Jack’s.

“Yeah, it’s the most important Halloween stop in town: there are all these amazing carved pumpkins, Jack always gives out FULL-SIZE candy bars, shows horror movies on his TV, and, has plenty of whiskey for adults who are game for that sort of thing.” It was all true…mobs of little kids AND adults would flock to Jack’s and the pumpkins were astonishing. Jack carved some of them, and lots of the young and the old joined in to create a magical Halloween every year.

Several years ago, Jack carved one of the most memorable pumpkins, ever. It was the year that the house just up from his place was finished. The lot next door to Jack’s place used to have a couple of big, old evergreen trees that were kind of scruffy. There was one gnarled snag and some brown and withered shrubs; there might have even been a bit of a garbage pile in those trees. It wasn’t a glorious sight…but it was some open space between his house and the house on the next lot.

That sad, empty lot became a HUGE house, with the edge of it built right up to the property line it shared with Jack’s. That enormous place was RIGHT NEXT TO Jack’s little home. The following Halloween, Jack carved a big pumpkin that told the whole story: there was a giant, drooling, Monster House with big, sharp, gnashing teeth, looming over and just about to devour, a tiny and oh-so-terrified little house. Jack carved it and placed it on the side railing, turned it so it faced toward the new mega-house and lit it up with a big candle. That was Jack’s style.

One of my friends spoke with tenderness about Jack this year, saying, “Yeah, Jack’s kind’a gettin’ up there”. Jack’s getting old, just like the rest of us. I saw Jack one day, down at the store. There was a woman with him, clearly not a relative or an acquaintance. She looked pretty uncomfortable – didn’t quite know what to make of Jack, or any of the odd assortment of folks that greeted him. I knew she was some kind of a caregiver. Jack was wearing his standard outfit: a logging shirt, heavy-duty blue jeans with suspenders and well-worn old, black, work boots. Only this day, he’d gotten over-zealous when tucking his shirt into his pants, and instead, his shirt was tucked into his underwear, which were pulled up higher than the waistband of his pants.

“Oh dear,” I thought. I was familiar with this kind of confusion about getting dressed, from the years I spent with my dad toward the end of his life when seemingly simple routines could easily get all mixed up. I said hello to Jack, even though I’m kind of shy and had never really spoken to him directly. I wanted to make sure that even though his life was shifting…needing to have someone help him out…that I, we, still remembered him…still appreciated his role in this town. He lit up when I called out to him, moved toward me and with a big smile, asked how I was doing. The woman that was with him didn’t move, or look toward me – she gave Jack a little bit of privacy in this new territory he was in.

This year when my friends and I walked up the hill to Jack’s house it was pretty quiet up there. Oh, the Jack-O-Lanterns were all still lit, and they were as amazing as always. There was Elvis staring out from the side of one big pumpkin; an image of a wild horse running across the face of another with its mane flying out behind it, and there was a portrait of Jack, with his mischievous, twinkling eyes. But it was quiet now. Jack was inside and all the lights were on. He used to turn all the lights out to make the horror movies even scarier. This time, the TV was tuned to a news program and Jack was sitting right up close to the big, flat-screen TV…maybe so he could hear it, or see it. No one else was there. No candy bars around, no whiskey bottles either, just Jack and the 9 o’clock news.

We toured all the pumpkins and then went inside to say hello. He was happy to see us…but also kind of torn between talking to us and listening to whomever was shouting about something on the news. Finally, one of Jack’s long-time pumpkin carving assistants said, “Hey Jack…want us to blow out the pumpkins for ya?” A little distractedly, Jack said, “yeah, sure, that would be great.” We all said goodnight, went out on the porch and one by one, blew out each candle, loving the work of art one more time. Yep…Jack was “gettin’ up there.”

The next evening I just happened to drive by Jack’s as dusk was falling. There was my friend, the long-time, pumpkin-carving assistant, out on the porch, slowly lighting up each of the pumpkins. Just as on Halloween night, Jack’s front room was all lit up and the TV was hollering out the news. A couple of nights later, well after dark, I drove by Jack’s, and this time another neighbor who lived just a block up from his place, was out on his front porch blowing out one pumpkin and then the next.

That’s the kind of place we live in. We are learning what it means to be a Village. Jack fed us for so many years with his wondrous and scary Halloween house…now we’re lighting the candles for him, and blowing them out each night.

Goodnight Jack. Sleep well. We love you.