One of my neighbors died this week. Cancer. The kind of cancer that scares you into thinking you’re dying, seems to disappear so you and your loved ones have hope, then rears its deadly face and snatches the light from your eyes before you even know what’s happened.
But this isn’t a sad story…though I admit, I cried when I heard the news. It’s just that Brad and tears don’t belong in my memory together.
You may or may not know that I settled in my neighborhood after my divorce precisely because it’s where I grew up. Raising two very young daughters by myself and working full-time, I needed the kind of support that only comes from being around people who know you and who care, even if you don’t have daily proof of it.
And that perfectly described this neighborhood when I moved back in almost 13 years ago. The now-elderly neighbors on my street sent their kids to school with my parents; they watched my brothers and sisters and me walk by on our way to school every day for a dozen years or more; they watched my daughters received first communion, and confirmation, and graduate from our neighborhood elementary school.
Along they way, they critiqued uniform cleanliness, and complemented singing in the children’s choir, and gave perfumed kisses when my parents, we or my daughters shoveled their sidewalks in the winter.
Brad’s mother is part of that old guard. And so was Brad for the pure fact that he lived with his mother a few houses down.
Every morning, after my daughters had set off for school and I went racing out the door for work, Brad would walk by, wave and smile. It became part of our routine so that if I didn’t see Brad walk by, wave and smile, I knew I was either running early or late (aka, late…let’s be clear, I never ran early.)
Likewise, in the evening, I always seemed to be coming home while he walked the block from the bus stop to his house. Another smile and wave. If, as it sometimes happened, he was already home, he would usually be sitting on the font-porch swing and he’d stand, smile and wave as I drove by.
My youngest was always on the look out for Brad. When she spotted him, she would smile brightly, wave and shout “Hi!” Then she would say, “mom, he’s always so happy to see us!”
Or another time, “it’s like we truly belong here now that the neighbors wave.” Truthfully, Brad was really the only neighbor that waved for a long time. Mostly that was because our neighborhood lost nearly half its residents during the housing crisis. Even some of the old guard left during that time. But when new neighbors began moving in, Brad was there with a smile and a wave. And they smiled and waved. And we smiled and waved.
I’m proud to say that almost all the neighbors in my half of the block smile and wave daily. Thanks to Brad.
But Brad did more than just smile and wave. Brad worked at the library downtown. He rode the bus. He sang in the church choir. He was a devoted brother…and son.
But it was his cancer that showed me Brad’s true gift.
Several months after I first heard he had cancer and began to see the physical changes that sickness and treatments create, I saw Brad sitting on the porch swing looking glum. My youngest and I were returning from soccer and Brad did not stand, nor wave, nor smile.
When we had parked, my youngest hopped out of the car and looked back at him a few houses away. “Maybe he didn’t see us,” she said. She continued to look at him to see if he would notice her. “Maybe he’s not feeling well today,” I added also continuing to look that way worried.
Then two days later, Brad came walking down the street, just as I was getting out of my car. “Hi!” he said and smiled and waved through the window like our normal routine. I jumped out of the car as fast as I could and almost blurted “Hi! How are you doing?!” I was so relieved.
“Well, I’m trying to get better every day,” he said beaming sunshine at me. “I have some bad days, but that’s to be expected. So I just go on!” Then he waved again and started walking on. I yelled after him that we were cheering for him and wished him well. But I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move as I watched him walk briskly the rest of the way home, up his steps and in his front door.
I stood there for a long time, “to be expected” ringing in my ears. I don’t know why, but I never thought of cancer like that. To be quite honest–if not naive–I never thought of life like that.
Nothing is all smiles and sunshine—that’s what makes the smiles and sunshine so valuable. I know that. But I guess I never understood it until, there, right in front of me, was the simple acknowledgement–and acceptance–of that truth. With a smile no less.
I stood there realizing how much I had come to depend on Brad’s smiles to help jump start my own smile at the start or end of a busy day. To be expected. So if Brad could accept the suffering of cancer as part of the journey, shouldn’t I take more ownership for the hiccups and obstacles and challenges natural to my journey?
I decided to give it a shot. For a couple months now I’ve thought of Brad anytime something didn’t go as expected in my day. My washing machine broke. An unexpected project risk. A cranky customer…or teenage daughter. Strep throat… And each time I’ve asked myself, “is this part of my journey? Is this to be expected?” And each time the answer has been “yes.” (My washing machine was more than 20 years old. Projects and clients can’t always be sunshine and smiles. The trash has not yet learned to take itself out. I’ve been having difficulty sleeping for weeks. Etc.)
Then came the news. I hadn’t seen Brad for several weeks by the time my mom, now also one of the old guard, told me. But it wasn’t only the old guard who noticed. First it was the young couple next door to me, then the boomer couple across the street, then the older Russian man a few houses down, and the young professional guy a couple houses up from that, and the visiting daughter of an elderly neighbor across the way. These neighbors with whom I share a daily smile and wave have flagged me down wondering at Brad’s disappearance and hopeful that the old guard has passed me some information.
Some didn’t know he had cancer, others had heard he was doing better. Most didn’t know his cancer was back. Each time, each person, with a sad look on their face, then told me the same thing, “he always seemed so happy to see me. He made my day so many times because of it.”
“That’s to be expected,” I gently muse now as I share the news of his death. “I just wish he knew how happy I was to see him.”