The Empty Chairs
When we first moved into our home a little less than two years ago, I wasn’t too fond of our neighbor’s plastic chairs. Sounds superficial, I know, but this was my husband and my first home, and I wanted everything to be perfect. The chairs were positioned right next to our driveway on a patch of dusty dirt, and I felt like they were an eyesore.
Our neighbor – a Mr. Thomas – passed away a few weeks ago, and the empty chairs are a reminder of what isn’t anymore. After his death every day I’d look outside and make sure they were still there. I was afraid of them disappearing. I knew they wouldn’t be retained to sell in an estate sale, but they had become important to me. Every time I saw them they reminded me of the man who owned them and used to sit in them.
Mr. Thomas was almost 90 when he died, and we hear he left everything he had to the local university. I’m sure they’ll eventually just get rid of the cheap lawn furniture and everything else that doesn’t seem valuable to them. What I really want to do is to ask to keep one of them and then to let my children paint it in a rainbow of bright hues in honor of him (an idea our babysitter gave us when were talking about how much the chairs meant to us), but I’m not even sure whom to ask. And it doesn’t feel right to just surreptitiously take one.
Is it still stealing when you take something no one wants?
Yes, my husband and I talked about it, and we think so. But we don’t want the chairs discarded without any thought because they are more than mildewy plastic. They mean something to us and to our children.
The day we learned Mr. Thomas had died, I pulled into my driveway after dropping my oldest daughter off at her homeschooling co-op and I no longer saw cheap plastic. I actually hadn’t seen that for a long time. I did see the emptiness though. Those chairs were a place for an old friend to sit, rest, read, and wait and watch for us to come and go. Now a puddle of dirty water pooled in the one of the seats was a reminder that no one had sat in the chair for awhile now.
The other day, just beyond the chairs, I noticed a squirrel perched on the basin of what was supposed to be a bird bath but what our neighbor used as a big bowl for bird seed. The squirrel scampered to the top, studied the basin, and then quickly retreated, his tail twitching. Perhaps he was agitated that he hadn’t discovered any breakfast in there for several days. I remember our neighbor complaining about what a nuisance those squirrels were, but he admitted in the next breath that he liked to watch them eat as much as the little birds.
The bird bath is as empty as the chairs now.
It was sitting in one of those chairs that Mr. Thomas held our baby boy only a month or two ago. He was sitting in one of those chairs when Mary Elizabeth, completely unprompted by me, ran up to him and hugged his legs.
He was pleasantly startled. “Oh,” he said, “that felt nice. I’ve never had a child do that before.” I do believe our little flower child made his day.
Many times we’d come over and find him sitting there back before his body really began to fail him and he was too weak to come outside any longer, and we’d deliver some treats we’d just made together. He had quite the sweet tooth and never met a cookie (or scone or muffin) he didn’t like.
The girls and I made two loaves of strawberry bread recently with the berries we’d handpicked at a local farm. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” I said, thinking aloud. “We have no one to give the extra loaf to now.”
We knew the end was near.
Mr. Thomas had been in and out of the hospice house since Christmas Eve. We were supposed to have him join us for dinner, but we heard his raspy voice on our answering machine apologizing that he wasn’t going to be able to make it. We visited him. My then 2-year-old shuffled her feet nervously and kept tugging at my shirt. It was nice hospice care home, but nothing could cover up the stale, sad smell of loneliness.
But he didn’t stay for there too long. He returned home in about a week, but he never seemed to bounce completely back. He ended up in the hospice home for about a week before he succumbed to old age.
When we first moved in, Mr. Thomas moved slowly, cautiously on spindly legs, but he didn’t seem quite so weak and frail. He had a dogged spirit and could be feisty. He was old, but he didn’t have to labor for his breath. His mind was sharp; his eyes sharper. He was always watching our comings and goings.
At first, I admit I didn’t like the way he was always regarding us and knew my husband’s work schedule more than I did.
“Dave’s been working a lot lately, hasn’t he?” he’d ask.
Sometimes when I made a nighttime grocery trip, I’d see him hunched over his kitchen sink with the blinds open and I’d feel his eyes on me as I’d climb into my van and when I returned, he’d be looking out at me again and would keep on watching me as I unloaded the bags of food – as if I was doing something really interesting. It used to feel intrusive. But it didn’t take long to realize what first appeared to be nosiness was really loneliness. Soon I found myself looking for him looking for me, and I’d wave at him. Now I miss his window’s square of light at night and his face looking outward.
At times, I regret, it was bothersome when I’d look out and see him sitting in those chairs enjoying the shade of the towering tea olive bushes nearby. We were in a hurry. We had places to be, and I knew he’d want to chit-chat.
He would always say things like, “Well, I know you’ve got to get going,” or, “I don’t want to keep you.”
Before long I learned to pad some extra time to talk with him. I’d load the kids into the van, and carry on a casual conversation about the weather or the latest book he was devouring. He was an avid reader. Books took him to places his ailing body no longer permitted him to go.
I learned, too, to appreciate his watchful manner, his need for conversation just as I learned to see the plastic chairs as a place for a tired, old man to rest and watch. We all grew to know him, to recognize his loneliness, and to love him as well.
On his birthday, shortly before he passed away, we showed up with chocolate cake, his favorite. The girls had made him birthday cards. We sang, “Happy Birthday” to him while he smiled.
But we didn’t stay long enough. We had a Costco run to make, and the warehouse is over 20 miles from our home. Looking back, I admonish myself. Couldn’t our paper product stockpile remain depleted a little while longer?
That same evening I was rushing to get to Mass. He was sitting outside in his chair with his kind nurse, whom we’d also grown close to. She said, “Mr. Thomas has some pictures he wants to show you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but we can’t look now. We’ve got to get to church,” I said hurriedly.
Now I wonder when our obligation to minister to a fellow human being supercedes our Sunday obligation to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Is it sometimes not more important to be Christ to others than to receive Him?
Each time I see those vacant chairs, I question myself and how much (and how little) time I spent with our neighbor. His nurse, when she came to clean out his medical detritus and stood on his porch stoop with an entire garbage bag full of empty medicine bottles, told me I can’t do that. “You were good to him,” she said.
Her eyes were wet and then she said, “I not only have to find a new job; I have to find a new friend.”
Later that same day Mary Elizabeth asked, “Remember when Mr. Thomas died?” It had only happened one day ago. I remembered. I remembered this, too: He wasn’t afraid of dying, he had said, but he was afraid of dying alone.
It was for this reason that my husband went to see him while he was in hospice. Just in case, he was dying. A few hours before he died, my husband brought him pictures our girls had made. On folded white paper my two older daughters had drawn happy things like flowers, rainbows, and jazzy, purple spirals. Rae scribbled, “I love you.”
My husband sat by his side. Mr. Thomas couldn’t say much because he was struggling mightily to breathe. I wonder if it felt like he was drowning. I hope not. His body was filling with fluid. The end was drawing near. The room was comfortable enough, but it wasn’t cozy like his own home brimming with books. And my husband did say it was sad because the only sentimental clutter in the hospice room were the pictures my girls had drawn for him and two photographs of him signing papers with university officials smiling and hovering around him.
When my husband returned, he told me, “It won’t be long.”
It wasn’t. He died shortly after my husband’s visit. I hope he didn’t feel too alone. I hope he knew we loved him.
He never married. He had no children. Mr. Thomas talked about his mom some and his days as a cryptographer in World War II. For much of the war he was stationed at a remote air base in French Guiana where he spent his days decoding and encoding military messages.
When his military career was over, he worked as a librarian. He told us he had fallen in love with books as a child and as an adult, he donated many first editions to the university.
During his younger years, he played the stock markets, too, and from what we gather, he played well.
But, really what is a generous reserve of money, if you have no one to share it with?
To most of the people in our town, his only legacy is the rotunda on campus emblazoned with golden, all-cap letters that spell out his name.
But my little family could care less about buildings branded with his name or valuable books that rest in the special collections section of the library. We have a baby bowl he gave our Thomas as a gift. It is discolored and cracked. And it is a treasure. He wept when he gave it to us. “I remember my mother feeding me out of that bowl,” he told us, voice trembling. “I’ve been waiting for the right baby to come along to give it to.” On the card that came with he, he had written: “From an old Thomas to a new Thomas.”
This bowl is his legacy to us. The cheap, plastic chairs left behind are a legacy, too. So are his stories he shared with us. I remember the sprinkling of silver stubble on his face. His smiles. His voice calling out his cat’s name every night, “Andy! Andy!” Andy the cat who we found wandering in his yard almost two weeks after his death. The poor fur ball as puffy and grey as a storm cloud had been adopted by a cousin down the road, but he keeps coming home looking lonely and lost without his beloved owner. My daughters put a bowl of water on the strip of grass in Mr. Thomas’s patch of grass next to our driveway. They’re looking out for Andy just as Mr. Thomas looked out for us.
Mr. Thomas gave us so much. He gave us the reminder that life is worth living even when it’s dwindled down to sitting, watching, reading, and filling a stone bird bath with bird seed. He gifted us with an invitation to slow down long enough to notice someone whose worst disease was loneliness. Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the greatest poverty and was the leprosy of the West. So many of us have so much; yet, we feel so alone. Mr. Thomas helped me to teach to my children the importance of attending to a fellow human being who had nothing more to offer than stories, memories, and an appreciation for a beautiful day when one could sit in a simple chair and be grateful for great authors, greedy squirrels, the chatter of children (he told us he loved to hear the din of our family; it was a chorale of cheerfulness), and for life.
His last words, uttered with great effort, to my husband were this, “Give everyone my love.”
His loss was our gain because today we are richer because of this gift of his love.
His love was far better than anything we could have asked for, although I’d still like to get my hands – and my girls’ paintbrushes – on one of those chairs.