Fred’s car is still in his driveway and seeing it there still catches me by surprise. As I am coasting down the street, heading home at the end of the day, or when I am backing out of my own driveway on my way out some where, I see his little car – old maroon Honda Civic – and my heart leaps and I think, “Oh, great! Fred’s home!” In the next moment, I remember that Fred is no longer here in his previous form, that his house, which he lived happily in for decades, is unoccupied, that his car sits unused in the driveway. Some times it also happens that very early in the morning, when it is still quite dark, as I’m heading out with Happy for a trip to our park for some exercise, I look across the street to see if the light is on in Fred’s kitchen, if he is at the window washing dishes or looking out to see if I am up yet. I always felt like the two of us, Fred and me, and Happy the dog – and the water fowl at our park – were the only creatures awake in the neighborhood.
Last year at this time, during this season, was when Fred’s decline began. He had months of unexplained recurrent anemia, fatigue and vertigo. For awhile it was feared that the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he’d had previously was back for another round. But Fred’s team of doctors ruled that out, other cancers, too, and made sure that his diabetes was under control, gave him periodic blood transfusions, and kept a close eye on him. His daughter Joanne or son Peter took turns taking him to various medical appointments throughout the autumn months and into the winter. The dizziness from the vertigo drove Fred crazy, especially because it prevented him from taking his own walks through our neighborhood, puttering in his garage or the dormant garden, or jumping into his car in order to visit Peter at his shop or attend mass at Saint Agatha’s. Fred was home-bound. If the lights in Fred’s kitchen were on later than I thought was usual, or weren’t on in the early morning when I woke up, I would be worried.
As often as I was able, in those darkening days of autumn 2009, I’d pay an evening visit to Fred, dropping by for a chat, sometimes with some homemade soup to offer him (“Could you use some lentil soup, Fred?”, borrowing his favorite phrase of generosity.) Because of his diabetes and my chronic intestinal condition we ate virtually the same diet, so we took pleasure in giving each other homemade treats, especially if the ingredients came from Fred’s garden. During these visits, or on the phone when I was unable to stop in, he’d tell me about his day, how he was feeling, the results of a medical appointment, reminiscences about the old country, or last summer’s tomatoes, or what not. And he’d ask me about my day, or he’d wonder after Isobel, so I’d tell him highlights, mostly having to do with what was happening at the park, or politically, or I’d describe in great detail some fantastic recipe Izzy and I made or planned to make soon.
Fred was fortunate that he had a couple of short periods where he felt stable enough – not too wobbly and weak – and so was able to leave his home not just for medical appointments or a transfusion, but for Sunday dinner with his family, or for a short cane-assisted walk around the block. But the overall trajectory for his embodiment was downward, back toward the earth.
So, now, a year or so later, on the particular day I am writing, a day in early November, there is unexpected mildness to the weather, no rain, moderate temperatures, that quality of light when the autumn sun is bouncing with glee off the edges of the leaves, which are all those ridiculously beautiful throbbing shades: bright red, deep purple, hot orange and yellow. I have exactly forty-five minutes at home in between things, so I decide to mow the front lawns at my home and then at Fred’s – hopefully this will be the last mowing before the rainy season kicks in with earnest intensity. As I am mowing Fred’s lawn – something I began to do regularly the summer before his final months on earth – I feel his presence quite strongly.
My relationship with Fred is undoubtedly based in part on memories of our past experiences, the things we did for or with each other. As I mow his lawn, I think about the many times he’d “watch the homestead” for us when we went out of town, taking in our mail, keeping an eye on things, and welcoming us back even if we’d been away just for the weekend. Fred was – is – one of the best and truest friends I’ve ever had, and so I continue to have a great deal of space in my mind for remembering him, and obviously I feel moved to tell and write stories of him, as a way to keep him alive.
But – and this is so important and yet I’m struggling to match my experiences with words and thus communicate it to you -- my relationship with Fred exists in the present, in the unfolding of my daily life, and I feel quite certain that we are still cultivating our relationship, though we exist on two different planes of reality. That he is still alive for me, still a central part of my daily life, that I actually have an active relationship with him is a beautiful, perplexing phenomenon.
I still have Fred’s phone number in my cell phone contact list – and, along with his, under his entry, I have his son Peter’s and daughter Joanne’s numbers as well, leftovers from the time last autumn and earlier this year when Fred was in his physical decline, contact numbers “In case of an emergency.” Now, Joanne and Peter have their own entries in my contact list. Peter and I occasionally text message each other, most recently about whether he had any photos of Fred I could use in a digital storytelling project I’m starting – images of Fred to accompany the words I’ve been writing about him and our relationship. Joanne some times calls me about the garden or to let me know what’s growing at her C.S.A. farm. On Fred’s birthday this year, September 1st, the three of us exchanged messages. I realize how fortunate I am – and how it was far from inevitable, it didn’t have to happen this way – that in addition to knowing Fred, I have the opportunity to know his adult children as well, to have an active relationship with all three of them in the present.