A huge dumpster arrived one day, and was left intruding on the end of my neighbor’s driveway. It wasn’t a surprise, honestly, given the goings-on of the previous week.
Six years before, when we moved to our quiet neighborhood we immediately recognized the gap between ages. My wife and I were young pups compared to our fellow street mates, including the man diagonal from us. The man who lived on the corner, just north of the grade school, where the culvert dipped and flooded every spring.
He had two dobermans, though the cast changed as dogs died and moved on. There were always two, however, and I knew this from going to check on him and hearing the familiar treble-heavy barks exploding in stereo from the living room window.
He was nearly 80, divorced, and his ex-wife had died long ago.
His children were near, but not near enough, and that’s how the story goes.
He was crafty. He was cantankerous. He was lonely.
In my interactions with him, I received my fill of stories about drag racing on the streets of the south suburbs. I heard tale after tale about small engine repair, the glories of living a younger man’s life and the torment of being laid off—summarily—on a day when you’re twice as old as the one firing you.
The day when you’re left with nothing but social security. The day when you wonder what those thirty-plus years of work really mean. He had lived enough life to drive grime and goodness deep into the creases on his face and the empty sockets often covered by dentures. This is what comes when things get lost.
So it was known, at least to my wife and I, that we’d be in the position of finding him dead. We would know, from the lack of dog tracks in the snow and from being unable to recall the last time we heard the mufflers of the old Dodge pickup, that he had passed quietly and alone.
However, it didn’t happen that way.
The day my wife called breathless, having pulled into the driveway seeing firemen batter open the door—that day did not follow our script. The scent of long darkness drifted over the neighborhood as they found our neighbor barely clinging to life with one of the dogs faithfully departed at his side. The other dog was in hysterics, trapped in the bathroom. This was not the script. This was not the quiet loneliness he was intended to walk into.
We cried and felt our stomachs fall; we speculated—don’t we all?—that the grimness was far beyond what we were seeing because in some ways making the situation more gruesome helped blunt the shock of the actual reality. The gruesomeness of a movie actually makes the real-world gruesomeness palatable somehow.
He passed that night. Quietly. Alone. The right script, just a scene too late. That is how these things progress and resolve. This is what happens when things get lost.
So the dumpster appeared, and every worldly possession of no further use was upended into its steel belly. Carpets, bedding, mattresses and clothing fell end over end into the dumpster, and with that material exorcism he was gone.
This is how things progress when something is lost. The grieving moves to purging which moves to remembering. The Scriptures say that man is like a “vapor”—that we are here and gone before we can recount the tale. Yet what a tale to recount! Even a vapor leaves a trail, a mark, has a presence and place.
To listen to one another, to love when we can, to know that we have but today and that today is a day well within our grasp—that is to prepare for that moment when things get lost.
I wish that we had talked more.
I wish I had said more to him about that Nazarene carpenter.
I wish I had one more plate of cookies to deliver.
That is the way of things, however. We live with the memory of the script recounted to us, for us, and we honor God by seizing that very moment. This is what we do when things get lost.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Saïda Hächler