I would like to tell you a story about a man, but I’m not sure how to tell it. A man full of kindness and life and friendship. A man who helped spark my love of travel. He moved next door in the late 1990s, which was odd only because he also taught at the same state university 60 miles north of Pittsburgh that my dad did. What were the odds that two, later three, professors would all live on the same street? He fit in well with the rest of the “Point Breeze Socialist Commune” – a conglomerate of artists and teachers all on the same block. I was a kid that didn’t always fit in well with other kids and loved stories about travel and sat for animals more than for children, so I appreciated hearing about his annual trips to Mexico, intermingled with Nepal or Peru or India, and would take in the mail and feed the hamsters while he was away. His thanks came in Mexican art – a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe on tin, a painted ceramic turtle.
When I got older, I would occasionally take the dog Moses and later Sluggo for a walk in the park. In college my dad started joining the trip to Mexico, taking student teachers down to a school in Mexico City, exploring the different states and museums and buses. I got used to seeing his face over the fence from our back yard while I was home on breaks. We’d chat about what we found at garage sales – a particular love of both his and mine and my mom’s and the great deal he scored. I thought his smile looked like Steven Spielberg. Dad and Josh and I all wore Hawaiian shirts to his wedding. When he and my dad retired from the University the same year they began taking long bike rides, ultimately riding from Pittsburgh to Cumberland over the course of three days. His yard consisted of stone statues in various states of disrepair that became a destination for the neighborhood daycare to visit on their walks. Once his canoe blew off the stand and nearly knocked down our back fence. His house was an international art gallery. He was family to me, as much as any of my uncles ever were. The day he died, I could not have imagined a less likely thing for my dad to call and tell me.
I have more story to tell, but I’m not sure how to tell a story that isn’t entirely mine and that I only know in bits and pieces. Feelings and fragments of memories. As I read this piece, if feels disjointed, but the feeling is accurate to mine. I’m a bit disjointed. I don’t know how to respond to death, as if I must match my reaction and grief to those around me and like too much feeling shouldn’t be allowed. I struggle with the right words to accurately portray my feelings, because my words don’t make much sense.
I had a neighbor. He was my dad’s best friend. He felt like family. He died. Life feels a bit more empty now.