It wasn’t my most memorable date (that would require something worse than puking or better than a limo), but it was my most unlikely date.
After three failed attempts to find company for a friend’s swing band concert, I was about to give up and just stay home. Then, strangely, Harry came to mind. I say “strangely” because, aside from the fact that I knew my neighbor’s name, Harry was basically a stranger. But in a story for another day, God put Harry, literally, in my path – so I sheepishly asked. And he said yes.
Harry is 81, with two ex-wives and no children to speak of. Like the habit you never intend to give up, he confesses to making important decisions too quickly. He spends money easily, on whatever he wants. He says he’s got the money, so why not buy whatever he wants. It’s hard to argue with someone who’s 81, so I don’t.
The thing he may have loved most in life is cars. He sold a good one to buy an engagement ring for wife #1 when he returned from Korea, and he sold another one to buy a house for wife #2 years later. In hindsight, he’d rather have had the cars. He’s owned more than a hundred, and as recently as September, he was wheeling and dealing over the phone.
But Harry apparently also has a soft spot for vulnerable women about the age of his long-estranged daughter. That’s where I enter the picture. One day last winter when I pulled into my parking spot, Harry was seeing a friend off two spots over. “Hey,” he yelled in my direction, “I want to meet you.” So he did, and thereafter, we waved at each other whenever our comings and goings happened at the same time.
Then, on that unlikely spring evening, Harry and I went to the swing band concert – he, with his portable oxygen tanks, and I, with a warm feeling in my heart for a new friend.
Then came summer and Harry’s 81st birthday present from his doctor – a diagnosis of stomach cancer. Longtime friends convinced him to spend a beautiful Bellingham summer suffering through chemo and radiation. His Labor Day reward was the doctor’s word that nothing had worked. And, oh, by the way, you also have a spot on your liver.
And so began the official process of dying. Ironically, once his body got over the cure that nearly killed him, Harry actually started feeling better, and his friends buoyed him with stories of people who long outlived doctors’ timelines. Harry took it all in stride from his living room chair, where he watched TV and all the neighborhood happenings outside his patio doors.
He stopped driving somewhere around Labor Day weekend – the chemo really did nearly kill him – and when I noticed that he hadn’t been out, I called to see if he wanted me to get his mail. The condo mailboxes are a couple blocks away, and on account of his bad lungs, Harry always zipped over in his grey Scion (“the box,” as he calls it) to pick up his mail. “Well, sweetheart, that would be very nice!” Mostly every day since, I’ve delivered Harry’s mail and then spent a few minutes watching TV and visiting with him.
I’ve never watched someone die before. Two of my grandparents spent their last days in nursing homes, but distance kept me from visiting more than once or twice. I’ve never had a front-row seat. For months, it seemed like Harry would defy the doctor’s, well, deadline, but when I came back from the holidays, things had changed. He stopped talking about getting a scooter, and he mostly stopped eating, too. This week he stopped bothering to get dressed.
Harry’s not a religious man, but he told me once he sometimes watches Charles Stanley on Sunday mornings. He’s got good friends that span the ecclesiastical spectrum, and I suspect that at one point or another, many of them have tried to convert him. But if Harry is anything, he’s his own man and he does what he wants, thank you very much.
I know how part of this story will end. Harry will die. Soon. What I don’t know yet is how the other part will end. I hope he’ll live. Forever.