I hadn’t seen my neighbor Harvey for weeks, but that wasn’t unusual, especially for winter.
When the weather got warm each year, Harvey was outside all the time. He was cutting grass, trimming hedges, talking to everybody. But in the winter, I didn’t see him much, especially since he left for work at midnight and worked all night, sleeping during the day.
I found out a few minutes ago that Harvey died about a week ago.
The news of his death hit me hard. It was only a couple of months ago that my neighbor Cora died. I know other neighbors, too, but Cora — directly across the street — and Harvey — two doors down — are the ones I’ve known best. Their deaths make the neighborhood feel very different.
At least Cora had lived a long life. She was a retired school teacher in her 70s. Until the last year of her life, she was active. She dated — and constantly told me about the men who were after her — and she traveled far and wide, visiting friends and her eight children.
But Harvey was younger than I am. That makes his death more uncomfortable for me. His loss is a reminder that death can come at any time. Even for me.
I got to know Harvey because of my lawn. I hate yard work and avoid as much of it as I can. Not long after Harvey and his wife, Connie, moved in a few years ago, grass was one of the first things he wanted to talk about.
I was walking Lucy late on a summer night when a voice called out to me from their porch. Harvey and Connie were on their front porch talking — smoking with the lights off — and it was their first chance to meet me.
After we introduced ourselves and exchanged a bit of small talk, Harvey asked whether I minded if he cut the grass in my yard.
I was a little taken aback, because I thought he was looking to do paid yard work. I detest cutting grass, but not enough to pay someone else to do it. But he quickly reassured me that he didn’t want to be paid. He said he enjoyed cutting his grass, so when he got to work, he wanted to cut mine, too.
I happily agreed to this crazy arrangement. In the weeks to come, I got to know the couple better and developed a real affection for them.
His daughter-in-law stopped me as I drove past Harvey’s house a few minutes ago. She didn’t seem sure how to break the news.
Harvey had said for a long time that his health wasn’t great. He had spoken of fears about heart problems, but he hadn’t talked with a doctor about it. I don’t know why. A few weeks ago, he experienced chest pain for several days. It finally got bad enough that he asked Connie to take him to an emergency room.
Harvey was having a major heart attack that night. Doctors told him that what he had been experiencing was a series of smaller heart attacks. He had immediate open-heart surgery, during which doctors performed three bypasses. At first, he seemed to be getting better. Doctors were apparently optimistic.
While still in the hospital recovering from surgery, Harvey asked Connie to help him with something. She started trying to help him, but then he was suddenly gone. Doctors were unable to bring him back.
I’ve been lucky enough not to have much death in my life. In most respects, we’re shielded from death in our culture. We rarely see people die. When they do die, we rarely see their bodies until they have been cleaned up and artificially made to look “natural.”
Except in the case of an accident or sudden death, most people die in hospitals or nursing homes. Their bodies go directly to mortuaries — which we call funeral “homes,” for some odd reason. And then the body is gone.
We have as little contact with death as possible in our culture.
The deaths of Cora and now Harvey affect me partly because I loved them, but the bigger reason is simple. When we’re honest, other people’s deaths are ultimately reminders that we are going to die.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a restaurant where the dining room is mostly deserted on a late Sunday afternoon. An older couple have been eating on the other side of the dining room. He appears to be in his 90s and she seems to be around 70.
After they finished eating, the woman went to move their car to a door for him. After she left, he was having trouble standing, so I went over to help. He accepted my arm and he let me help pull him to his feet. After he was up, he shuffled gently across the dining room floor with the help of a cane.
As I held the door for him and exchanged pleasantries with his wife — who seemed grateful for my help — I found myself thinking that he probably won’t be around much longer. And I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of life he had lived — what he had done, who he had loved, what differences he had made.
And those questions always leave me feeling distressed about my own life.
I don’t want to die. Few people really do. But we live our lives as though we’re going to live forever. We seem to believe we have forever to live and love in the ways we want. We act as though there’s always tomorrow — to figure out what’s most important and to find the meaning we want in life.
Those thoughts always leave me unsettled, because I haven’t done so many of the things which matter to me. And that terrifies me more than I know how to explain.
So Harvey’s death leaves me thinking about myself and my own fears. It leaves me frustrated that I don’t have so many of the things I need. It leaves me angry with myself for wasting so much of my life, first in pursuing things which don’t matter and then later in throwing away love which could have saved me and given me the meaning which I need.
I’m grateful to have known Harvey. He was good to me in life — and the shock of his death is giving me the chance to think about things that I need to deal with in my own limited lifespan. That makes me appreciate him even more than I did before.
Some people might have been tempted to call Harvey a redneck. He wasn’t well-educated. His grammar and accent made it clear where he was from. He was just a good old country boy, even though he had moved to a city suburb.
But Harvey was a good man. He was a great neighbor. And I’m happy that I was able to call him a friend.