Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Love of a Neighbor

This is just one neighbor...there were others with incredible lives too.

Sometimes we have to tell the story of another because they would never tell it to the whole world themselves. They are humble and tucked away on a piece of old  Michigan farmland. Their old barn is one of the largest I've ever seen. I like to imagine two pioneer farmers casually chatting by the barbed fences of those hills, a hundred years ago when the trees were all cleared. Two old farmers chatting as neighbors, way before us. Before two new sets of neighbors, with their hardships, love, birth, and death. Since I don't know that story, I can only tell the one I was blessed to hear and know.

I almost didn't stopped by that day, as I hadn't visited in a few years at least, since moving away. I felt ashamed of myself for not checking in after the news I heard. But as I was driving by their house I thought, "What the heck...it doesn't hurt to stop by, and I do want to see how he's doing."  As I walked up to the sliding glass door, the kitchen lights had that warm glow just like old times. The two little dogs, Yogi Bear and Ranger, barked, and my old neighbor Gene recognized me as I walked up. We gave each other a welcoming hug and asked each other how we're doing. "I'm alright," he said..."I have good days and bad days." I took a seat at the kitchen table and noticed his big beautiful Harley parked by the sliding glass door. He had another friend over, as they were going to shoot guns together but it'd gotten too late. There was a gun case and ammunition on the table, not an uncommon sight for folks in this area. The two little dogs barked for awhile as my old neighbor tried to calm them down. He sat down to chat with me.

"Marilyn was my foster sister," he told me. "She was in foster care with my family because her father was beating her. We were 17 and 20 when we got married ... I was Catholic and she was Church of God. After counseling us for 6 weeks, the priest wouldn't marry us because he said it wouldn't work. So we went to her pastor and after he prayed about it for awhile, he said he'd do it and that we'd make it but it'd be hard. And we made it, through good times and bad times. We were each other's best friend, and it'd have been our 40th anniversary.

Two years ago she developed a throat condition. It was like a hoarse throat, she couldn't talk, but then it didn't get better. When we went to the doctor they ran tests, and sent us on to eyes-ears-throat specialists. That's when they told us that she had ALS, which usually develops in the lower limbs and not the throat. This wasn't what we wanted to hear...no one wants to hear that. It started with the throat, and then one part of her mobility after another. So for two whole years, I didn't go anywhere except taking her out to the hospital in Marquette. I sold anything I still had payments on, and just stayed home with her."

My mind kept returning to how vibrant and full of faith she'd always been, and it as hard for me to think of her this way, helpless. I sat at the table and kept listening to Gene, how he chose to do home hospice himself for his wife and keep the mucus in her throat from choking her to death. But as I listened, my mind kept returning to the memories I had of her: she'd invite us in for green apples and tea, and tell us about the power of God. Sometimes she fed my siblings and I other treats such as brownies or hot dogs. Sometimes she helped give a ride to town, or meet up on walks down the road with us. We could scarcely look through the trees out our window and see her walking Emily, her black lab, down the big hill. On one particular walk several of us took together, we ran into another neighbor further down the road. He was out on a four-wheeler looking for his lost dog, one of two or three dogs. He was clearly frustrated that his dog had run off into the thick nest of wood that sheltered the river, too hard to go through with a four-wheeler. Marilyn said,"Let's pray that God brings your dog out." to which he mumbled, "I'm not a christian, and I don't believe in that." But Marilyn chimed back in her uncensored way, "I am, and I'm proud of it!" So she prayed anyway and no joke, the dog ran out of the thick woods just like that. 

Other neighbors thought she was a strange one in many ways, but that didn't matter to me. We all have our ways of being strange and you should have heard the stories of some of the other neighbors! In some ways she was stand-offish and in other ways she had a wide open heart and made you feel well-loved. She typically dressed like a biker chic, with colorful bandanas, jeans and tees. I remember when she had her motorcycle accident from hitting a deer, and broke her collarbone. She didn't bike quite the same after that. Sometimes she put on a little weight which looked good on her tall height, but mostly I remember her being thin. She was either typically on a healthy eating diet or fasting with prayer, even to the point of frailty. This gave her strength later, I suppose. Gene said that as he'd take care of her during her illness, he'd ask if she wasn't tired of all the suffering yet. And since she couldn't speak, she'd shake her head, smile and point to a picture about Jesus the Healer on the wall. He said she never stopped believing that God could heal her, anytime.

 "You remember Marilyn's dad, hey?___ when he lived here with us?" Gene went on. I was now making the connection: Gene met Marilyn all because she was in foster care with his parents, and she was in foster care because her father beat her. And when her dad got older and frail, she took him in. I remember now, how she spoke of her dad with such love and care, and after making this connection, it pricked my heart. "You know, Marilyn forgave her dad...," Gene continued as he stroked Yogi Bear's fur and I tried to make friends with little Ranger. Wow, in my memory of her dad, he was kind and gentle to us as the neighbor kids. I wonder what changed in him and how. I wonder what the journey was like for Marilyn, and, for Gene her husband. That is love without walls. My heart beat, back in the place where it used to beat, but in new rhythm.

Gene started to tell me about the love of yet another neighbor, while Marilyn was sick. We all knew the trauma this man had faced some years before, with the loss of his daughter, and how he was now raising his grand-daughter. Well, if I go back, I remember Marilyn telling me she had a vision for cows on her land again. She kept saying the cows were coming, and she and Gene longed for grass-fed beef. Sure enough, one day there were Scottish highlanders up there on the hill, grazing away. Now, when she was sick, Gene went on to tell me how this other neighbor and his grand-daughter came over to care for the cows and mow his lawn, etc, every day. Whatever they could do to help, they just kept coming so he wouldn't have to do anything but stay by his wife's side. I could tell that it meant so much to him, and he was overwhelmed by their goodness. He said they looked forward to coming and caring for the cows everyday, and even when he could now do it himself, they still wanted to come over. I was overwhelmed by their care too...when have I done such a thing for a neighbor, for two full years?

Once Marilyn passed, Gene went to visit his grown son in another state, and then out to his sister's in New York City. He said it was hard to get back on his feet, literally, after only walking around the kitchen and to and from the bathroom for two years. His sister's life in New York city is very different from his own in the Upper Peninsula. A "house" can be just a large unit in a gigantic building, rent can be $15,000 a month, and an Amazon order of toothpaste and shaving cream can come up to a skyscraper unit within only 30 minutes of ordering. People do anything for work there, he said, such as the naked cowboy singer in the park...all sorts of people, all sorts of jobs, and a simple breakfast can easily cost $60. I'm sure this isn't everyone's life there but that's what he experienced. I'd say that New York City did the job of helping him 'get away' from everything he'd just went through though.

I knew he had many more days to get through, in his grief. The spring burial meant that he was still going to have to face everything again, so he was just taking it 'one day at a time'. I was glad that he had his Harley out in the kitchen...and he mentioned getting back into a biker group. "I still haven't been able to go through all her clothes," he said. I couldn't imagine. "Today I just loaded up more of her hospice care equipment for the hospital." I sat there thinking, "This is one of the strongest and most beautiful men I've ever known." I longed for him, as my old neighbor, to find a life again, to be happy again. Then he says the doctors found a little prostrate cancer in him, and he needed an MRI. He might be fine but he had no way of knowing yet, and he was peaceful. "You never know, it might not be long before I'm up there with her, so I live every day as if it were my last." Breathe in and breathe out...prayer for this man.

After hugging goodbye and wishing each other well, I drove off into the night and knew that this visit was nothing other than divine. It left my heart wide open to reflect, to learn, and to love selflessly. I will never forget Marilyn, her fearlessness, and the way that she impacted my faith as a neighbor.


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