One evening, well into my third marriage, I wrote this poem. It is about men, women and what I had learned from my experience up to that point about romantic love versus reality. I hadn't expressed myself in the poetry medium since my late teens and I was surprised to see the piece once it was done. The words had come easily off the pen to the page like a flock of birds leaving a telephone wire to land on a rice field.
I stored it away, not really sure what to do with it. Once in a while, I would read it for my own edification during my rough patches. It lay on my desk for years as I raised my children and lived peaceably with my wife. I was two decades away from my retirement from letter-carrying on The Trail Of Tears.
Like a glacier which gives up the bones of climbers who fell half a century before kilometers away from a summer scree-field, the day came when I began my last route. It was a neighborhood that had escaped me thus far over the thirty years and there were not many in that category in the Lower Mainland. It was old, funky and well kept with an eye to thriftiness. That is to say, rather than make-overs, each dwelling had been repaired as needed and the work done was always top-quality. I admired it and found the people to be very intelligent, outgoing, opinionated and generally philosophical.
It turned out to be one of the old Jewish neighborhoods and was now tucked away behind the massive Children's Hospital and Red Cross Blood Donation Clinic complex, which it predated. My territory was from 37th Avenue at Cambie St. over to Oak st. and down to 26th Ave. It had over five thousand stairs, a park, a Synagog, multiple Rabbis, an old fashioned strip-mall, a gas station and a Starbucks.
My youngest son had found lodgings across the street and I would be pleasantly surprised to meet him at the coffee bar once in a while at random. There was a deli in the supermarket and it sold world-class spanakopitas at ridiculously low prices. There were pastrami sandwiches on rye breads sturdy enough to take the weight of a sandwich that would humble a field-hand.
I was soon enjoying this run. I found a house near the park where I would sit for my sandwiches and coffee. The old couple inside came out on the first day and invited me in to sit at their table. I declined due to my muddy gear and the second day, the old man donned a toque and jacket and began sitting on his steps to chat while I had lunch. He told me the history of the environs and described the view before it was blocked by the ongoing hospital construction and the long line of Cars2Go.
His name was Goldberg and we became friends. I usually had a parcel of books for him and even when the old fellow stopped coming outside as the weather got colder, I had a few words at the door with him several times a week. Once when I thanked Mrs. Goldberg for being so nice about letting me use her steps to have my lunch on, she told me that we all might as well be good to each other.
“After all,” she said, “We are only alive for a short few days, but when we die, we are dead for a long, long time.”
It was the kind of place where you could be buying a Baby Ruth candy bar at the grocery store and have a spirited discussion about Quantum mechanics with the cashier then another about orchestral composition outside with a random passer by.
There was a house three calls from the park with a long set of wooden steps. Almost every day, I would be greeted by a handsome elderly man at the bottom of these stairs. He was tall, slim, evenly gray and well muscled for his medium sized frame. He carried himself nobly without appearing haughty or proud. He dressed in modest top-quality wool slacks, a well fitting shirt, a sweater-vest, a jacket and wore a scarf always.
His voice was accented such that I placed it somewhere on the plains of Hungary near Lake Balaton, though I never asked. I assured him that I minded not carrying the mail up the steps and he always insisted that I give it to him in the yard. We had many small talks this way and I used to watch him wandering back and forth in his yard as I ate lunch across the street.
One day as I handed him his large stack of mail, I remarked that I could always tell which were his letters when I was sorting as 90% of them were in the same odd square shaped envelopes with black borders. There had been scores over the first several weeks of such envelopes. As they were not post-marked from Germany, I overlooked the significance of the dark borders. The man looked at me square in the eyes and asked me if I knew why those particular envelopes were arriving everyday. I answered that I did not.
“They are condolences, Michael. My wife passed away three weeks ago. We have many friends. We married when we were very young and were together constantly for fifty years. It's hard now. That is why I am outside the house all the time these days. I have been many places and have done many things. This makes it hard to get excited about life any more. Believe me, life hold no surprises for you when you get to my stage. We have one son. She was a wonderful woman, wife and mother.”
I gripped his arm and expressed my own condolences. We spoke awhile and I told him briefly of my three marriages and how I managed to find a woman like his on the third try. It turned out that we had both married at the same age. I was twenty-three years into my current marriage. He told me that the important thing was that I'd found her eventually.
Days passed and on each of them, I delivered a stack of the ominous black-edged cards from all over the city and all over the globe. Something began to gnaw at my heart over those days and would not relent. I knew the feeling and also knew to wait until the cause made itself known. The old man stopped coming outside after that and I missed seeing him.
One day soon after, I was eating lunch on the Goldberg's steps and it hit me. I rushed through the route and got home on the train as quickly as I could. I dug out the poem I had written decades earlier on love. I printed it out and wrote a small explanation at the bottom in my own hand. I put it in the longest rectangular envelope I could find and addressed it to the old man.
My idea was to bypass the politically correct format of expressing condolences and to openly recognize and celebrate this man's extraordinary life of love, fidelity and companionship. What he had just lived through was increasingly rare in the world we inhabit.
Fifty years together with a faithful woman and the raising of a well-educated son. Somehow, the expression of sorrow at the recent loss by the man's friends seemed to me to lack recognition at the five decades of heaven he and his beloved had enjoyed, no doubt due to their own good character, perseverance and dedication.
In my opinion, if he had followed his wife the next day, his had been an exemplary life, well-lived and containing its own rewards, spiritual and temporal. I was sure of it, down to my bones.
I delivered the long envelope together with a hefty stack of the sad cards and a few bills. I hadn't seen the man for some time. The next day he was still absent from his yard. A week went by. Like all heart-led decisions, I began to doubt myself and actually worry that I had over-stepped some boundary and either offended or angered the man. This feeling grew more intense as the days grew colder.
In the second week, I had a registered item for the gentleman. With some trepidation, I knocked at his door. Presently, he appeared in the glass pane, attired as usual. He gently swung open the heavy wooden door and signed for the item. When he handed me back the digital device, he straightened his body and drilled me with his eyes. He looked at me the way a man does when he is wondering if he can kick your ass and the jury is still cloistered.
I nearly trembled visibly, such was my angst at possibly having offended the wonderful man in any way. I heard crazy babble fabricating explanations in my turbulent mind. Another part of me was serene, calm and sure. That was my heart. I waited for him to speak, like a man tied to a post and waiting for the report of the firing squad's volley.
“Wait here a moment,” he said sternly.
He disappeared into the house, past a beautiful oak table set up for six people. He returned a minute later with my poem in his hand.
“Did you write this?”
“Yes, Sir. I am sorry. I just wanted to tell you that you are an example of the kind of man I strive to be and that I know that luck has nothing to do with it. I wrote that poem many years ago and I didn't know why nor who it was intended for. When you told me of your wife, I knew it had been written for you.”
“Micheal, it made me feel good! I showed it to my son. It made him feel good. We both thank-you very much, Sir.” He bowed low, the way an orchestra conductor does. I felt like I was in someplace like Vienna and it was the eighteenth century.
My heart felt like I had main-lined some Adolph's Meat Tenderizer and we shook hands. The next day my new friend was again out in the yard. He thanked me again for the poem and said his friends had also liked it. He said his Rabbi had liked it. He told me that he came from a land of many trains and that he had an analogy of life based upon them. You got born on the train and found that there were some people on-board that you liked and some that you didn't. You couldn't get off and when it arrived at the final station you were done. I told him about my Train To Heaven story. He smiled and stroked his chin.
The next day I met him on the pavement outside the Starbucks. He had been chatting animatedly with a beautiful young woman who was pushing a baby carriage loaded with grocery bags. It was cold but the sky had cleared to a beautiful cobalt blue. When the young lady went her way, the old man approached me and shook my hand. He thanked me again for the poem and we began to chat. I rolled a smoke and sipped my coffee.
Like a father, he put his arm across my shoulders and looked at me the way someone does when they are about to impart a great secret. The expression was one in which the orator has already determined that the listener is ready to receive the information. There was no vestige of doubt on his face.
“Micheal, do you want to live a long time?”
"As long as my creator deems fit,” I replied.
“Of course. I am a Doctor. That's my profession. A medical doctor. I only retired recently and I practiced medicine for over forty years. Here is my gift to you. Don't go to doctors. Period. Stay away. Believe me. I know. My mother smoked like you and lived to be well over one hundred years old. Do you know why? She absolutely and categorically refused to see a Doctor for any reason whatsoever.”
He looked around to see if our exchange had been monitored and then looked back and smiled warmly. He patted me twice and walked away. I never saw him again.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.