In our neighborhood, this past spring brought the usual...

Coping/Mortal Matters

August 10, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

In our neighborhood, this past spring brought the usual seasonal drama of rebirth. The crocuses were followed by daffodils and forsythia. Later, the peonies produced their annual splash.

But on our block this time around, the flowers took second place to the dramas of life and death taking place inside. Our household was busy welcoming a new life; meanwhile, next door, our neighbor Joe Mack was saying goodbye.

One cold January morning he called with the news that his diagnosis of low-grade lymphoma had been changed to acute leukemia. The doctor estimated he had a month to a year left to live.

But for Joe, a man later described in a eulogy as the "salt of the earth -- and sometimes the pepper, too," the number of days was never as important as their quality. "I'm not especially brave about these things," he told me. "But I'm not frightened. I look on this as a final healing."

For a man who had fought his own ill health for almost a decade, watched a beloved son die of AIDS and suffered through the death of a daughter from cancer, the word "healing" had special meaning. There are many ways to heal, Joe learned in almost eight decades of life. Physical healing is only one of them.

By April Fools' Day, when our son arrived, Joe's strength was lagging badly. The transfusions that kept his strength up were losing their punch. He was, he said, "tired of being tired."

But as he faced his death, his "final healing," he took comfort in the continuity of life.

"Welcome to the world," he told our son. "When your own life is ending, it's so good to know someone else is coming to take your place."

Juxtapose them door to door, and the beginning and end of life take on an eerie resemblance. Our two households were the ones with lights popping on at 2 a.m. or 3 or 4, the ones with visitors during the day, the ones filled with people somewhat numbed by lack of sleep and the demands of full-time care.

But of course the outcome of all that work is vastly different. A baby grows into happy self-sufficiency. A terminally ill patient grows weaker.

Yet in one of those serendipitous situations life sometimes creates, our two households found comfort in each other. For new parents, the sadness of losing a neighbor and friend was tempered by the vivid presence of a brand-new life. And for a large and loving family saying goodbye to a beloved father, a newborn baby brought a welcome ray of light -- not so much diversion as perspective, a perspective Joe himself did so much to reinforce.

In early May, one of Joe's visiting daughters stopped by. It was an especially tough time, I learned, because it was the day Joe announced he was ready to stop further treatment and, with the help of a local hospice, set up a downstairs room for his final days.

As he put it, "My body is leaving Joe Mack."

Joe Mack left his body for good early one morning in the middle of May. At dawn, my son stirred in his sleep as the ambulance door slammed and Joe's body left the neighborhood one last time.

Caskets and cradles. It's an image poets have pondered for thousands of years. On our block this year, that image played itself out in real life, reminding us of what we know but often overlook, that life is mysterious and wonderful and -- yes -- fleeting.

My son won't remember hearing Joe welcome him to the neighborhood and to the world. But he'll know about his friend because we'll tell him.

New life is its own miracle. But so is the continuity that gives each life a history and a context -- and a very special welcome.

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