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Because one day they aren’t there

The hardest thing to get used to is the stillness. The quiet. The absolute absence of any movement at all. Day after day, everything is just as it was the day before.

His old Ford pickup is backed up to the garage, with the headlights pointing straight at our deck like a pair of eyes keeping watch. His late wife’s Subaru — which he could never bring himself to sell after she had a heart attack and passed away on the first day of their tropical vacation 10 years ago — is on the other side, nosed up to the garage door, as if hoping to gain entry. Between them is the golf cart he rode every day down the steep driveway, and then up the road to fetch his mail, with our chihuahua mix keeping pace and barking furiously as he chased along inside our fenced-in yard.

For whatever reason, our dog hated that golf cart. It made him livid. Every morning, he would sit up on the bed, look out the window, and wait for any sign of it. When it finally did appear, speeding up the driveway at a shocking rate of speed, it was as if the dog’s body had been entered by a demon. He thrashed on the bed, tore a full circle, shrieking more than barking, and then diving for the door to give chase.

In the 10 years that we were neighbors, John and I only had one uncomfortable moment, a small handful of cross words. It was over the chihuahua. One summer day a couple of years back, I was home listening to the Rolling Stones on the stereo with the volume turned way up. My son was downstairs playing some similarly loud video games with his friends. And, completely unbeknownst to us, the dog was standing out in the yard, barking incessantly at John, who was over in his driveway tinkering with a dune buggy he had bought as a project and just “for the hell of it.” There might have been 15 feet between the dog and John.

Had I heard the dog barking, I would have shuttled him back into the house so John could work on his buggy in peace, but all I knew in the moment was that Mick Jagger just couldn’t get any satisfaction. John stood as much of the barking as he could — a lot more than he should have — and then came over and pounded on the door. It’s the only time I ever saw him angry. I apologized for not being more attentive. The next day, he called and apologized over and over for losing his cool.

Because John was cool. He was a retired engineer, but I can’t imagine anyone being any busier than John has been in retirement. He was always doing something. Always. He converted that garage into a workshop. He worked on projects, sold things on eBay, got almost daily deliveries from FedEx or UPS. He took turns driving his pickup and the Subaru around town, or he would take that dune buggy out for a spin. Once I thought I saw him wearing a helmet not much different than the one Jack Nicholson wore in “Easy Rider.” He had a great time messing with that buggy.

I can’t imagine a better neighbor than John has been. One cold morning last winter after a heavy snow, an enormous tree fell from another neighbor’s pasture across our driveway. While we were outside in our heavy coats surveying the damage and trying to figure out what to do about the tree, John came crunching over through the snow with his chainsaw. He sawed all morning, while I lifted and stacked the pieces.

I can think of a dozen or more similar stories, the many times he has helped us and a few times when we might have helped him, though those stories are far fewer. I always enjoyed sitting and drinking a beer with him, talking politics, world affairs, or whatever else might be going on. He was a brilliant man and a kind man. He told me not long after we moved in that his notion of the ideal neighbor is one who is always willing to help, but pretty much minds his own business otherwise. That worked fine for us, and it worked great for 10 years.

Last Monday, when I woke up, made coffee, and went out on the deck to check the weather just like any other day, I was greeted by the sight of a dozen or more vehicles in the driveway we shared with John, emergency vehicles lined up and down, with an ambulance at the top. Law enforcement, First Responders, people swarming, maybe 20 or more. My heart fell through my body like a stone.

John had died in bed, about 36 hours before they found him on Monday morning. Friends had tried calling him on Sunday and got no response. My son said later, “I can’t believe I was just over here playing video games like nothing was wrong while John was over there dying.”

Someone’s there, and then they’re not. “Because I could not stop for death,/He kindly stopped for me.” All of that. My wife had helped him move a new lawnmower just a few weeks ago because he was having some trouble with the clutch in the truck. He’ll never use it. Day after day, his cars and that golf cart just sit there now in the very same spots.

During this holiday season and in the spirit of Christmas, be extra kind to your neighbors, especially the ones who live alone. Reach out while you can, as much as you can. Because someone’s there, and then they’re not.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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