Three years ago and three days before Christmas, my long-time neighbor, Ralph, of 53 years passed away at the age of 61. When our family relocated from Chicago to this tiny rural farm village in Central Illinois, we found our neighbor had two boys, the youngest my age. Although we were never really close and went to different high schools, he was nevertheless, the only neighbor we had to our north the entire 53 years we’d lived here. The older brother inherited the house upon his passing and decided to rent.
It was winter when the new tenants moved in. We noticed there was an ambulance over there because the flashing lights were strobbing through the bushes separating our properties. We were concerned that someone was ill, but didn’t know who it might be or really anything at all about them.
Spring eventually arrived, and I was set about the task of not only getting SunDay Gardens back into shape, but it also entailed major clean-up from the prior Thanksgiving waterpipe dig in the backyard which literally destroyed all the landscaping, statues, birdbaths, arbors, pergolas, patios, pathways, etc. I mean d.e.s.t.r.o.y.e.d! As the muddy messy clean-up began, we found out we needed to replace our sewer lines on the side of the house. So now the garden was torn up from the alley in back all the way to the street in front. What?!? “Can you say expensive, boys and girls?” Thank goodness I had retired just 2 months before this life-altering debacle. There was so much work required that it took an entire semi full of garden and landscaping supplies delivered from Menards and dumped in the driveway to begin the drudgery of putting things back in order. So, new neighbors were not really on my radar at that time. I was completely distracted by morning to night repairs, lugging bag after bag of pea gravel, stones, mulch, decorative rock, patio block, digging and planting shrub roses, whiskey barrels filled with cement, posts righted, lattice repaired, aviary restored, adirondack chairs repaired, pond dredged, water pump replaced, fairy garden constructed, fence painted, broken cement statues put back together, driveway refacing, lighting installs, etc. This work was being completed while simultaneously mowing the lawn, trimming the trees and bushes, weeding the flowerbeds, and tending to the surviving plants and wildlife. It took six months of continual laborious work to make our garden whole again.
One of those days in the backyard, a nice woman from next door said, “Hi.” I wasn’t sure she was even speaking to me at first, but after looking around, I realized it was me she was addressing. She introduced herself as Margie and said she was my new neighbor. I always love meeting new people when I have on an old hairband rock t-shirt leftover from when our boys were teens growing up in the 90’s, muddy, baggy clothes, pink Crocs, no make-up, and a worn paint-stained baseball cap. Not to mention I’m graceless and unskilled in the art of small-talk. Once I’ve bantered about the weather, I got nothin’. If I know you, and you want to talk about current events, property insurance underwriting, plants, cats, politics, etc. I’m there for ya. Plus being from Chicago initially, not talking to strangers or making noticeable eye contact was pounded into my head at a very early age. This disadvantage combined with my self-consciousness about my horrid appearance compounded the awkwardness of the moment. I was able to gather myself by throwing out a return greeting and apologizing for my appearance by saying I always look like a homeless farmer when I’m working in the garden, then highlighting some of the issues we were experiencing with the destruction left by the plumbers, etc. I’m sure the impression I made was awesome. However, she put me at ease immediately and was obviously better at new encounters than me.
I came to find out through her that our new neighbors were a family comprised of my new friend with the kind face, Margie, who was nearly my age, her adult daughter Roberta, and her 2-3 year old disadvantaged grandson, Lewis.
Lewis has special needs and at the time had seemingly uncontrollable seisures (which nowadays is better controlled but still a threat), is autistic, at the time couldn’t walk, and only knew a few gutteral sounds for communication. He has been receiving continual care and social and physical rehab from various institutions available from our county which has been positive to his development. It was a regular occurrence for the ambulance to be in the driveway next door at any and all hours of the day or night. Each time the child had a seizure, a prayer chain was enacted through Facebook connections each and every time. Prayers, best wishes, positive thoughts, thumbs up, red hearts/candle/angel emojis, along with uplifting memes were posted en masse to lift up the mother and grandmother and their entire circle of family and friends. “We’re pulling for you!” The child has made wonderful strides in his development since I met him 3 years ago and now even attends school. He’s a miracle in progress.
Okay, why this backstory, you ask? Because you need to know what has occurred for the imprint of this article to sear itself as a bittersweet spot on your soul.
Roberta was the stay-at-home mother of the disadvantaged child. My newly found friend, Margie, is also a most integral and essential part of this chapter of their story. The trio next door was your average family struggling to get through each day making ends meet. Salt of the Earth, churchgoing Christians, casserole cooking, apple crisp baking, leaf raking, hydrangea planting, child raising, family get-togethering, dog-loving, Midwesterners. A past that involved a long-term marriage with children and grandchildren and all that entails, the death of the family patriarch, a single mother and her differentlly-abled son, currently relying on her inner strength and family/friend/church members to meet the everyday challenges of modern life.
Roberta was a good person. She had a high Minnie Mouse kind of voice, a gentle way about her, undying love and respect for her mother, and complete devotion to her young son. She was involved in his care, his incessant enjoyment of watching Veggie Tales, his spunky boyish busy nature, she was seen walking him up and down the driveway and sidewalk in front of their house in his little push car, and over-saw his playing on his backyard playset gently thrusting him on his swing. When I would see her and engage in conversation from time to time, I’d ask her about her son and how he was feeling. She was always receptive, sweet, and thankful for the inquiry. Margie would post pictures and keep all of us up-to-date of the goings on of Lewis and Roberta giving us an insight into their many struggles and accomplishments. Roberta’s life was all about her darling happy young son who knew way too much about scary health issues, ambulances, hospitals, and needles.
One day while outside, a man in a pick-up truck pulled in front of their house. Margie just waved and casually threw a “Hi!” greeting in his direction as he climbed the stairs and casually opened the front door. She went on to tell me he was Roberta’s boyfriend. Boyfriend? That is so awesome! How great for her! Within months a post appeared saying Roberta and her beau were engaged to be married. Wow! Fabulous! Congratulations and well wishes abounded. They only lived next door to us for about a year. The family moved a few blocks down the street to a larger home to accommodate the growing family. About this time Roberta had her own health scare and needed a hysterectomy. We were all concerned about her health, for sure. While she was recovering, Margie had to step in and do double duty. Not only did she take care of Roberta while she improved, but she now had double duty with her grandson. It was a tough time for the group who was no stranger to tough times. Roberta did recover, things started to return to normal, Lewis was improving, she was engaged to someone she was crazy about. All’s well in the universe.
Then about 2 months ago, it happened. Roberta was taken ill again. Her vital signs were low, she was in danger, but from what? Another nail-biting time for everyone. Another barrage of Facebook concerns, well-wishes, prayers, et al. The diagnosis came through. It’s cancer, and the most startling news of all — she only has a couple of months to live. What?!? The shock was unimaginable! Margie’s Facebook page just blew up! The sadness that followed was immense. Here is a sweet child of grace who finally appeared to have life progressing in the right direction, and her life is ending. A few days later she was sent home with hospice and family and friends visited to say their goodbyes. They were able to say their goodbyes because they knew what was actually occurring. How awful awful awful this is. Her son knew his Mom was sick because he certainly knew what being sick and in a hospital bed was like. But there was no way to help him understand the plight of his mother, and that he would soon be missing her forever. He may never understand what happened to her. It is a hole that will be there his entire life. The overwhelming grief suffered by Roberta’s Mother, Margie, as she watched her child slowly pass away in front of her was physically painful to those of us spectators outside the inner circle. Margie, a mother, grandmother, soon-to-be-mother-in-law, was now facing a future of raising her grandson without his mother. How is this even possible? Roberta passed a few days ago peacefully in her sleep. There are no expletives, demonstrative quotes, angelic memes, or positive thoughts that can truly encapsulate the enormity of the void in the atmosphere caused by this. Margie’s strength, attitude, family, and faith will get her through this, we know, but there really are no adequate words. Sad is the only word that comes to mind, and adequate it’s not. Sad, sad, sad. Rest in Peace, Roberta… Sandy