My neighbor Dick has touched over a thousand people’s hearts. Literally. In his prime he was a cardiothoracic surgeon who performed thousands of procedures. I can’t imagine having the kind of skill, knowledge, and expertise required for such things. It’s got to be a bit surreal to think back over your life and know that you have saved hundreds of peoples lives, extended ten times that, and had a positive impact on thousands of family members falling over each other with unyielding gratitude. Not to mention the weight that must come with delivering the worst news to the spouse, daughter, or parent of a patient. Watching as they clutch whatever is in their arms and hands a little tighter, pain and anguish climbing inside of them bursting from their eyes.
Dick is retired now and though his career is long behind him, he still comes out every day to check the mailbox at the end of his driveway and on Tuesday’s to wheel his trash cart to our shared curb. His hearing and eyesight are not so good so when he sees me, he always walks closer to the small green space that separates our driveways.
His greeting is familiar now, “Shyla, is that you? I can’t see so good anymore.” He hobbles with his cane a little closer. His smile is soft and genuine.
“Yes.” I reply, walking a little quicker toward him so he doesn’t have to come too far and also so I don’t have to raise my voice in an unnatural way like I’m talking to an elderly person who is hard of hearing. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, you know,” he says with a smile. And I’m not sure I know but think I might.
Recently I was working to tease the weeds out of the lilac bushes that live in our shared strip of green space. I was on his property on my hands and knees pulling out little saplings and Creeping Jenny that have planted themselves there. You have to really get them up from the root otherwise they will stubbornly grow back.
All the life that wants to live.
It wasn’t Tuesday. The mail hadn’t been delivered yet. Yet here was Dick outside and making his way across his driveway.
He smiles and says hi and asks me what I’m doing. I stand so we can be eye to eye and I tell him I’m pulling weeds. We survey the bushes in silence for a second. They have been neglected for far too long and are in rough shape but still working all their lilac magic to produce those wonderfully smelling blooms.
I once heard something about plants that were nearing a rough patch or the end of their time. That they somehow put all their energy into producing whatever it is that will beget offspring. Like a pine tree producing twice the normal number of pine cones as its branches become brittle and brown. Or a flower blooming out of control before a bad winter it might not survive, somehow with a premonition of things to come.
Dick breaks the silence and says the bushes look great. I don’t think we’re looking at the same bushes. They smell amazing though, and maybe with failing eyesight that’s what he’s basing his assessment on.
I ask him how it’s going. He surprises me and says, “You know a person shouldn’t live past 90.”
I’m not sure how to respond to that so I just smile and we stand there for another moment of silence.
He reaches over his cane and grabs the tendril of a Creeping Jenny and yanks it away from the bush. It snaps, leaving the root of the weed intact.
“I think I’ve got my work cut out for me,” I say.
“You’re doing good.” He says. And then “I’ll leave you to it.”
As he turns to walk back to his open garage door I can’t help but think that no matter how much good I do in my life, it will never amount to much.
All the life that wants to live.
I get back down on my knees and reach for another weed.