Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Mayor of Afton Place

Our house is at the end of a dead end street. Afton Place is a narrow, private road without sidewalks. On the day we moved in, the moving truck backed up slowly, barely fitting between the parked cars. Jeff moved our Volvo out of the driveway to make room and pulled in front of a house across the street. He was barely out of the car when an elderly woman on crutches was yelling from the porch.

“You gotta move your car. That’s where my husband parks.”

“Oh, Hi. I’m Jeff, nice to meet you. We just moved in across the street and down and I had to move the car so that the truck could fit in.” She stared at him, saying nothing.

“Okay, then I guess I’ll move it up to the cross street?”

She eyed him another moment and turned and went back inside.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

That evening, Jeff was unloading boxes from the station wagon. A barrel-chested man in blue denim coveralls and a broad brimmed hat walked down the street and introduced himself to Jeff.

“Martin Johnson. Heard you met the wife.”

“I sort of did, yeah.”

“People on Afton Place are particular about their parking spots; Private road, and all that. I suppose no one told you about the drainage problem here at your end of the street?”

“No…”

Mr. Johnson launched into a detailed history of the faulty drainage and run off system occurring in front of our driveway dating back to his wife’s arrival on Afton Place in 1967. The term “roving easement” was used many times. Jeff tried to follow along as he continued to unload the boxes.

“We’re just renters here, Mr. Johnson.”

“You should tell the landlord to get that pump going again or you’ll be looking at four feet of standing water in front of your house come the rains.”


For awhile our interaction with the Johnsons was limited to long stares from Mrs. Johnson as she stood on their porch with her crutches and an occasional monologue from Mr. Johnson about the easement and drainage problem to Jeff or me if we were in the front yard.

Christmas morning, we opened the front door to find a plate of cookies and loaves of sweet breads from some of the neighbors including a bag with hot chocolate and cookies in it from the Johnsons. In the afternoon we went down the block, from house to house, thanking people and wishing them a merry Christmas.

“That’s all from the wife,” said Mr. Johnson. “She’s crazy about the holidays.” She didn’t come to the door.


We had monthly potlucks and invited friends, relatives, and everyone on our street. Mr. Johnson was a regular. He always arrived first, about twenty minutes before the party began. I would put him to work, stacking napkins or emptying salad greens into a bowl. We would hang out and talk. I got to hear the low down on all the neighbors. He told me about his career in electrical engineering. I learned that his mother-in-law was born the year the titanic sank, and there was always something about the easement. He held court at our back patio table, telling guests the history of the street and drinking hot cups of sugared coffee. Mrs. Johnson never came over due to her “bad knees.”


One evening, it started raining hard. Mr. Johnson called and advised us to move our cars up the street for the night.”

“You can pull in front of Delores’ place. If you keep those cars in the driveway, they’ll flood when you pull into the street. The only way out will be by pontoon.”


When our neighbor Delores was in the hospital, Mr. Johnson took care of her five cats, all female. He explained that the cats ruled her house and were “living the life of Riley,” eating whole rotisserie chickens that Delores bought just for them. He complained that now he was taking care of seven ladies including the cats and his mother and mother-in-law. I often saw him sitting on the bench on his front porch, drinking coffee with one of the cats in his lap.

After Delores passed away, Mr. Johnson informed me that I would be taking one of her cats. I met him at Delores’ cluttered house and met Violet, that cat he had picked out for us.

“She’s an inside cat, so she should be easy to keep track of,” he said.

I had met most of Delores’ cats and I was sure we were getting the best one. I think Mr. Johnson thought so too.


Last year, Mr. Johnson started losing weight and complained of pain in his stomach. A few months later he was diagnosed with colon cancer. I drove him to his chemo appointments in the afternoons. Each time I waited in the driveway for him to come out the back door, I saw him kiss Mrs. Johnson goodbye.

“I’m getting so skinny, it hurts my bony ass just to sit down.”

“I wish I could give you some of mine, I have extra,” I said.

“It looks good on you, like that Pippy Middleton gal in England.”


As the treatment progressed and he grew weaker, we brought a wheel chair with us to the appointments. Mr. Johnson had a blue handicap placard to hang from the rearview mirror ensuring us the best parking. He referred to it as “the handi-crap.” After we left the medical building we headed straight to Soup Plantation. We cruised the steam tables and he picked out his lunch as we rolled through. We drank a lot of coffee. He brought chocolate chip cookies home for Mrs. Johnson. He always had a coupon.


Over time, Mr. Johnson’s condition worsened.  One afternoon, we had plans to go to his internist. Mrs. Johnson called me to let me know that he wasn’t doing well but still wanted to go to his appointment. It had been a week since I’d seen him and as Mrs. Johnson ushered me into their bedroom, I wasn’t prepared for his sudden change in appearance. The big man looked small against the pillows he was propped up on, the life seemed to have been erased from his features. His breathing was shallow.

“Let’s go,” he whispered.

Mrs. Johnson pulled me aside.

“His pain is real bad. I found a loaded gun he put on his bed stand. You tell the doctor that.”

I held his hand as we drove to the doctor’s office, occasionally steadying him as he slid around in his seat. His eyes stayed closed. I told him that I was going to pull into the handicap space because it was closest, even though we had forgotten the placard.

“Not without the handi-crap,” he whispered. “Ticket’s three-fifty.”

I found a space near the entrance and left him in the car with the engine running and the air conditioning cranked up. I ran up the stairs to the office and told the receptionist that I needed a nurse to help with a transfer and that we were in a hurry and would need to be put in a room right away.

The nurse took Mr. Johnson’s vitals. The doctor came in and scanned his chart. We stepped into the hall.

“You’re his daughter?” the doctor asked.

“No, I’m his friend.”

“His blood pressure is so low that it’s not registering.”

I told him about Mr. Johnson’s rapid decline in the past week. I told him about the gun.

“It says on his chart that he has refused hospice care at his home. I would recommend it at this point so that he will have someone there to help manage the pain. See if you can get him to agree to it. Then take him back home and I will have the hospice nurse and the social worker meet you at the house.”

When we got back to the Johnson’s driveway, it was well over 90° outside. Mr. Johnson appeared to be unconscious. The hospice nurse hadn’t arrived yet. The station wagon’s fourteen-year old air conditioning system was failing and it was too hot to leave him in the car. I would be on my own to get him out of his seat and into the wheelchair.

I pulled his feet out onto the gravel. I placed his arms around my neck and heaved him awkwardly into the chair. He was balanced precariously at the seat’s edge. I stood behind the chair, one arm wrapped around his waist and pulled. He didn’t move. He was slipping towards the ground and he was taking me with him. I prayed out loud.

“Dear God, please, oh please Amen and everything please.”

Without opening his eyes, Mr. Johnson then stood up and shifted himself into the back of the seat.

“Thank you,” I prayed again. I stopped and wiped tears from my eyes.

I wheeled him into the house. The nurse arrived soon after and we moved him into the bed.

“Mr. Johnson, Anne is here. She’s a nurse and she’s going to help you with the pain. Don’t give her any problems.” I kissed him on the forehead and went out to meet the social worker.

Mr. Johnson died later that night. A few weeks later, Mrs. Johnson gave me his coffeemaker.


Last Sunday was the one-year anniversary of Mr. Johnson’s death. Jeff and Bob and Mrs. Johnson and I made the trip out to the cemetery for a visit. We didn’t bring flowers since, as Mrs. Johnson put it, “Martin wasn’t a flowery person.” We went out for lunch afterwards. I drank a lot of coffee.


125 comments:

  1. A beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. This is a lovely account. Sad, and lovely. Thank you, Lisa. The Johnsons were very lucky to have a friend like you - and it is clear how much you gained from knowing him.

    Arohanui.

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  3. Lisa, I am so happy you told us this. You are a good friend, and thank you for sharing Mr. Johnson with us. I adore Bob, but I *extra love* when I come here and you've written.

    I gotta go call my Gramma.
    XO

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  4. This is a beautiful post. Thanks. I need to hear and remember things like this right now. I'm glad you've got a little extra time to write these days. It's a gift to all of us.

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  5. This was beautiful and moving. Thanks for sharing not just the funny stories.

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  6. Thank you for telling us about a wonderful man.

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  7. This was beautiful. Thanks for this great story...

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  8. Incredible post, incredible you. xo

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  9. What a gorgeous post, Lisa. I remember you telling me about your experiences last summer, and I thought at the time how lucky those folks are to live on your street.

    I just loved reading this - thank you for sharing it with all of us.

    XOXO

    A.

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    1. Thanks, Anna. I can't believe it's been a year already.

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  10. This is beautiful. I grew up on a street that's similar to what you describe and feel like I know these people. Thank you.

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  11. Mr. Johnson had me at " . . . come the rains." And, of course, giving you Violet. He was so blessed to have you there though I suspect you consider yourself the lucky one. Thank you for this exquisitely written post that has me all a mess this morning. Good tears, though. xoxoxo, Jennifer

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    1. Came here via Jennifer so I thought I would comment here. This is quite an amazing memory you've shared with us. What kindness and compassion you showed them both. I'm quite sure God is pleased. :)

      Reading about the handi-crap placard, I can't help but picture him as Frank Barone (Peter Boyle) on "Everybody Loves Raymond" since "Holy crap!" was his mantra.

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  12. I talked to my elderly aunt last night, she's 82. My uncle will be turning 83 in about 6 days. He has problems swallowing, is almost deaf, and has immense back problems. They also live kitty-corner across the country from me. I'm 30, and expecting my first child in about 2 weeks, and I haven't seen my aunt and uncle since I was 5.

    This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, Lisa. I'm glad that Mr. Johnson had you while he was around. And thank you again, for continuing to make sure Mrs. Johnson is okay.

    I hope to pieces that my aunt and uncle have neighbors like you.

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    1. It's so good of you to check in on them. xoxo

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  13. Awww Paigey, you made me cry. Absolutely beautiful. I love your giant heart.

    xoxo

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  14. What a beautiful post. I took care of my dad in a similar fashion when he was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately died at home with hospice care. What a blessing you were for each other.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. Your dad was lucky to have you.

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  15. What a good friend you are. How lucky were both of you to find each other.

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  16. What an amazing story. Thank you for writing it and sharing it to us all.

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  17. God bless Mr. John.

    And thank God for a world with you in it.

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  18. Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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  19. Oh Lisa - how beautiful.... thank you for sharing this. They were (and are) so blessed to have you.

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  20. What an amazingly written piece about an even more beautiful relationship. How blessed you all were to have each other; first he looking out for you then you looking out for him. It reminds me of what used to be commonplace and seems to have become a rarity.

    Thank you for sharing this bit of your world. It matters.

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl. I wish you and I were neighbors. xo

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  21. This is beautiful and I'm glad he had you (and you, him).

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  22. Wonderfully done, Lisa. Especially in weeks when all we hear is politicians tearing each other down, stories like this remind me that most of us are out there, quietly trying to take care of one another. I'm glad you shared it.

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  23. Beautiful post. And what a wonderful lesson in friendship for Bob---sometimes the best friends we wind up having are people we thought we might not even like or have anything in common with. Good reminder and I'm very sorry for your loss.

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  24. Honestly one of the best things I've read in a long time. Simply stunning, Lisa. XO

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  25. Smacksy, Lisa:

    What can I say.

    But this work is complete in just so many paragraphs.

    How it tells of human fight, how we put walls up then realize we need to take them down. How the power of prayer was in just the prayer.

    How much we can do, how much we learn, how you were his neighbor and he needed you.

    How you were part of his life, how his life counted on you.

    I feel so lucky to have read this today, and just your words in my mind will change how I go about my day.

    Thank you, Lisa.

    This: I could do with 64 more vignettes like this.

    Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Alexandra. That all means so much to me. xo

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  26. This was the kind of neighborhood I knew as a child. I hope I can make ours just like this for my family. Thank you for the inspiration.

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  27. In our tradition, when someone dies, we say "may their memory be eternal." You have done that for Mr. Johnson in a beautiful way. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  28. I've been reading your blog for awhile now and love sharing the funny things Bob says- he cracks me up! This is the first time I've felt compelled to comment. Mr. Johnson was lucky to have you in his life. Sounds like he was a good man. God Bless him.

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  29. This is an absolutely stunning tribute! Thank you for sharing his story with us.

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  30. Beautiful. I'm crying but they are both happy and sad tears, sad for the loss of a great human and happy that I could hear his story through you. Thank you.

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  31. Oh Lisa, this is an absolutely gorgeous tribute! Thank you for sharing it so eloquently.

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  32. This is just so, this will sound crazy, but full of life. What life is and how it goes and what grace we can find in each other. I wish you were my neighbor.

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    1. Not crazy at all, I think it is too. I wish you were MY neighbor! xo

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  33. Thanks for sharing. Beautifully written as always.

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  34. Beautiful Post, we meet such wonderful people through life that never leave our hearts.

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  35. Oh, Pippy. This was beautiful. And funny. And bittersweet. And I don't care how much someone begs, I would never take a cat. But straight to heaven for you and Mr. Johnson (rest his soul).

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  36. I teared up. Good neighbors are important and I'm glad y'all were and are that for each other.

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    1. Thanks, Alex. We're blessed in the neighbor department. xo

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  37. What an beautiful tribute to an amazing neighbor. Yours is the type of neighborhood I crave in the cookie cutter world of tract homes where the only time you see your neighbors is when you shuffle into the house after work and exchange a half hearted wave. I'm so glad neighborhoods like yours still exist.

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  38. Lisa, I just love this post. It's maybe the most beautiful one you've written since I've been reading (two years, maybe?) ... thanks for sharing it with all of us.

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    1. Thank you, Katherine. I appreciate that. xo

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  39. A friend passed the story link to me....lovely story. It made me feel as though I was there.

    Tamara Leonard Merritt

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  40. What a beautiful and caring person you are. I enjoy your blog and your daily dose of Bob. You are so observant of life and things around you and this post shows that you care as well. I wish I had a neighbor like you.
    Thanks for sharing and continuing to write.

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    1. Thanks, Sharon. I am blessed with amazing neighbors.

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  41. Well now, that was just so touching. You were so good to him. And I'm sorry you lost your friend. Next time I have a good cup of coffee I will think of Mr. Johnson...

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  42. Such a perfectly told story. How lucky he was to have you. Thanks for sharing his memory with us.

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    1. Thank you, Jessica. We were lucky to have him.

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  43. I am bawling here. BAWLING.

    What a gorgeous tribute. You are a beautiful writer and soul, my friend.

    -xo

    -Ellie

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  44. This is what being a good person is all about. Thanks for taking care of those around you.

    PS Beautifully written, too.

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  45. Wow, so powerful. What wonderful neighbors you were to each other. This hit me particularly hard since I lost my dad to colon cancer---such an evil evil disease. Thank you for making your neighbors' last days a little easier to handle.

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  46. Oh Lisa. I am just speechless. Thank you for feeling the nudge. Your writing is beautiful just like you.

    Your friend,

    Kimberly

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  47. What a graceful, gentle story. I want you to make this movie so everyone can see it. Thank you for sharing your memories.

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  48. I don't know you, but am visiting from SITS. What a touching story. I love the details about his life that you included. Thanks for sharing his story and yours! :)

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  49. Bless you for your kindness and compassion to Mr. Johnson.

    I am in the middle of caring for my kids and my aging mom and I know how hard it is to balance all of the appointments and care. You did it with grace and were a true angel to him.

    Stopping by from SITS! :)

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  50. What a beautiful post. I am so glad you took the time to share with us. It reminds me how important life is to live. How special to read how this relationship unfolded. Stopping by from SITS Sharefest.

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  51. Absolutely beautiful! Thank you so much for the tears this morning. They were very healing for me.

    Happy Sharefest. I hope you have a lovely weekend.

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  52. This was so touching. How lovely that you were all friends despite the age gap.

    So wonderful that this was your share.

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  53. OH now you have made me all weepy. This is so something I would do. It is so nice to find people who still believe your neighborhood is just as much your family as your family, especially in today's world. This was a beautiful piece and a wonderful tribute to a very nice man. Coming by from SITS

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  54. What a loving relationship and a beautiful way to help someone through the last weeks of his life!
    You are a very giving person:)
    Michelle
    http://www.normalchaosforamultitaskmom.blogspot.com/2012/08/5-minute-friday.html

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  55. Absolutely beautiful post Lisa.

    Next year, bring him a coffee?

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  56. He couldn't have had a better neighbor. You are an angel.
    Sweet and sad post all at once.
    RIP Mr. Johnson

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  57. This is so very beautiful. I think I'm in love with the Johnson's.

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  58. Lump in my throat. Loved this. Stopped by from SITS. I wish Mr. Johnson were there to celebrate your SITS Day with you. I wonder what he's say about it? Bet he'd be mighty proud of you.

    This post is exquisite. Thanks you for putting your heart and soul into it. It's beautiful.

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  59. What a beautiful post Lisa!!! You were definitely a blessing to the Johnsons and one heck of a neighbor!

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  60. What a beautiful post and what a sweet neighbor you had. And you're a pretty sweet neighbor too.

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  61. this is a beautiful post. Reminded me a lot of my Grampa who passed away a couple months ago. Mr. Johnson was very lucky to have you as a neighbor, and I have a feeling you would say the same about him.

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    1. Thanks, Jessica. Sorry for the loss of your grampa. xo

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  62. I couldn't help but think how differently this story would have been if the initial reaction to asking to move the car had been anger or disgust and how much beauty and friendship would have been lost. Love this.

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  63. I have gained a lot while reading your blog. I will definitely share this information with my friends.
    Thanks for sharing.
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