There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.
—Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
This late summer Sunday is wafting to a close. Soon the white puffy clouds drifting across the blue sky will turn to dark inkblots against an azure background. Soon the light will fade; soon the insect orchestra will begin its nocturnal prelude. Soon the heat of the day will give way to the coolness of eventide.
I sit on the front porch in the white wicker rocker, listening to an NPR podcast with my son. An open box of pizza rests on the small table between us. The author William Powers is talking about his new book, Hamlet's BlackBerry. He maintains that we in modern Western culture have become addicted to our portable electronic devices. More than that, the liquid display screen has served to shorten our attention spans. We revel in superficiality; we no longer give ourselves time to drift into the deep thought required to problem solve or search our souls.
Suddenly, the dog jumps to her feet and starts to yelp. My son grabs her collar and holds her fast. I look up to see a young couple approaching the house. Each one holds a dog tethered on a leash. My wife appears from the side yard and shouts a greeting. The woman's face beams a smile.
They retreat to the street in front of our house, this couple with their dogs and my wife. My son drags our terrier inside the house, where she continues to yelp and whine in the window. The podcast terminates; slowly I rise to my feet and saunter down the narrow stretch of front walk to the street.
My wife introduces me to the young couple. The woman has high cheekbones and coffee milk skin. The man sports a red beard and wears a straw hat. He reminds me of one of Van Gogh's self-portraits.
“This is the lady who bought Miss Perry's house,” my wife explains. Miss Perry was our septuagenarian neighbor when we first moved to town. She died back in 1999 at the age of 91. Since then the house has passed through several owners, but we still refer to it as Miss Perry's house.
“Pleased to meet you,” I say, offering my hand first to the woman and then to the man. We launch into a riff of small talk. I ask her about the breed of her little dog. The other one is a black Lab. “We used to have a black Lab,” my wife says. “Now we've got a Jack Russell.”
I listen to the gentle banter of conversation as eventide approaches. Finally, I take a small risk and pose a question that's been burning in my mind. “My wife tells me that your father was a doctor, that he passed away several years ago. What was his name?”
“Actually, he was a physician assistant,” the woman says, and as she speaks his name an uneasiness settles over my chest.
“What a coincidence!” my wife says. “My husband is a physician assistant!”
Reflexively, I utter his first name; the woman's almond eyes search my face. “You knew him?” she asks.
“Yes, I knew your father,” I say. “I didn't know he had passed away. What happened?”
“He developed a massive myocardial infarction that fall. Even after they stabilized him, he still felt poorly. The following spring he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and a month after that he was gone.”
“When was this?”
Eight years have elapsed, and I didn't know until now.
“He was living down South at the time, but he flew up to New England to see his old comrades-at-arms. He wanted them to take care of him at the end and they did. They were so good to him. They were like family. I remember one”—she names another name I know—“he was so good. When I asked him how long my dad had, he told me up front: ‘If you need to say something to your dad, say it now—it won't be long.’ It wasn't. Four days later he died.”
Her eyes grow misty; mine do too.
“You can tell you're a physician assistant,” she says. “You've got that PA demeanor about you—I can tell.”
“Who would've thought?” my wife says. Yes, who would have thought?
We wind up the conversation. I give the young woman a hug before they head out.
“I'm so glad to know you're living here in this house,” she says.
“We're happy you're living in Miss Perry's place,” my wife says. “It's got a lot of history.”
Yes, it certainly has.