Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death…
On Saturday we went to a beautiful service for my friend Peter. Residents who had been mentored by him painted Beta Bridge in his honor.
At the reception we saw a couple who had been our very first friends in Charlottesville. We hadn’t seen them in ages. Almost twenty years ago now, I attended a UVA Women’s Club event for newcomers. I was desperate to make friends, but there was only one person there who looked even remotely close to my age. I assumed that her mother had brought her along. I struck up a conversation with Emily and was delighted to discover that we were about the same age and had both just moved to Charlottesville. We had both recently gotten married and were trying to finish up our dissertations while our husbands were just beginning their academic careers. Overcoming my natural reticence, I told her that I was not going to leave without her phone number.
For many years we got together on a regular basis, but the last time we were really in touch was right after the birth of their third child. The baby had come so fast, they didn’t even have time to make it to the hospital. The baby was born at home with Peter giving instructions to Emily’s husband over the phone. At church the next Sunday, Peter and I chuckled over his easiest delivery ever. That was years ago, and now we were meeting again at Peter’s funeral. In his honor, we made a commitment there and then to rekindle our friendship. Just as I had resolved not to leave without Emily’s phone number all those many years ago, we resolved not to leave the church without putting a date on our calendars to get together.
On Sunday we were sad to learn that yet another friend and fellow church member had died that day. My daughter and I talked about other friends we had lost touch with and decided that it was high time to check in with Dr. B. I asked my daughter to write a note to herself to remind her dad about this. The girl does not mess around:
Dr. Bradley was our neighbor at the first house we lived in when we moved to Charlottesville. He had been a Colonel and an army doctor – a true officer and a gentleman. My English husband once said Dr. B epitomized all the things he loved most about America: he was generous, wide-eyed with wonder, curious, eager to learn, and open-hearted. Before we had even moved in, he put up bluebird houses for us and had planted tomato plants for us to enjoy. He would come back from trips to local orchards with bags brimming with apples and peaches to share with us. At Christmas, he would bring over a plate of the cookies he made using his late wife’s recipes. As a retiree, he was able to audit UVA classes and he would often take advantage of this benefit by sitting in on my husband’s classes on political theory.
We learned far more from him, though. After living in New York City for many years, my husband and I were faced with an acre of lawn and more leaves than we had ever seen in our lives. We kept putting off the Sisyphean task until finally one weekend we decided to face the music. We began to laboriously rake massive piles of leaves toward the woods. Our arms and backs were stiff, but we had only managed to move the leaves a few feet. Dr. Bradley strolled into our yard carrying a leaf blower and a tarp. He helped blow our leaves into piles and showed us a far easier method of moving the piles by loading them onto the tarp and dragging them to the woods. We were so grateful for his help, but deeply embarrassed to take it at the same time. We kept trying to hint that he had done enough for us, but he cheerfully continued to work alongside us until it became too dark to see.
“What time shall we start tomorrow?” he asked. We demurred, but he insisted that he loved using his leaf blower and that it was fun for him to spend hours and hours helping us clear our yard.
“Well,” I responded, almost believing him, “We’re going to church tomorrow, but we should be back by 12:30.”
“OK!” he said, “I’ll be back then!”
The next morning we woke up stiff and sore and decided that we would sleep in rather than go to church.
We were still lolling around in our pajamas at around 11 am, when to our horror we heard Dr. B’s leaf blower roaring into action. We couldn’t possibly let our elderly neighbor take care of our lawn, but if we went outside, it would be obvious we were goofing off rather than going to church as I had proclaimed we would be doing. Of course, we threw on our clothes and slunk out of the house to help Dr. B help us with our leaves.
One Halloween, I made a special point of visiting Dr. B’s house with my sons in tow. They were dressed up in Scottish kilts and I knew he would appreciate this as he had just been to Scotland on a tour:
We found him sitting in a dark living room, reading a letter by the dim light of a floor lamp. It was from his grandson, who was serving in Iraq. Dr. B wanted to read out loud to us from the letter, so we sat and listened. Just a few weeks later his beloved 20 year old grandson was killed in action.
We moved away from our first neighborhood and then two more times after that. Dr. B moved too. We tried to keep in touch with him, and visited him a few times in his nursing home. He always had things set aside for the kids…
The last time we visited Dr. B, we brought him some peaches we had just picked at the orchard. He wasn’t at home, so we left them for him at the desk. We never heard back from him.
It was time to reconnect, so I looked Dr. B up today. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that he died almost a year ago, on January 19th. He was 93. I wish we had kept in better touch. I wish we had had the chance to say thank you and goodbye. Dr. Bradley’s name, and the names of all the friends and family we have lost, are written not only on our arms, but on our hearts.