May 11, 2018

Creative Nonfiction by Bill Vernon: "The Presence Among The Blooms"

Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.


When my wife yelled up the stairs and told me that my neighbor Hank had died, I took it personally. Checking my email, I'd heard her down in the kitchen playing the telephone messages that our land line had gathered during our weekend trip to and back from Detroit—four hours each way of inhumane driving on I-75 into and out of the state that had led the fight to destroy as much of Nature as needed to use machines. Actually I think Michiganders are no more guilty of nature's wanton destruction than Ohioans. Americans in general have never respected the land except as a source of wealth or convenience. Every trip anymore throws me into despair at the losses the country and we as a consequence have suffered because of cars.
A niece seven months pregnant in Texas was visiting Detroit for a baby shower, and that event had given us a chance to see her and other relatives. It was my first shower ever, after rushing through wonderful galleries in the Detroit Art Institute. At home after the shower, our third saved phone message was about Hank. My wife a few hours later telephoned his daughter, a retired elementary school teacher who lives near Indianapolis. On the Saturday morning when we'd been running our gauntlet north, she'd driven her gauntlet east two hours here to Dayton to check on her father because Hank didn't answer his phone on Friday. Her version of events was that Hank had dressed, made his bed, gone to the front door, probably felt dizzy when he bent over to pick up the newspaper, carried it back to his bed, lay down on top of the covers, and fallen asleep where she'd found him. Died in his sleep without any commotion. The week before that, the doctor had warned her that Hank's heart was growing weaker, but a procedure to strengthen it was not an option. Hank was 99. His daughter had already planned Hank's century birthday party for next month.
For days my thoughts circled around Hank's death, frequently abandoning it to concentrate on something else but returning to it within minutes. It hit too close to home. Just one lot away from mine, his house was now empty. It shocked me although it shouldn't have. I'd seen Hank becoming more incapacitated. Four years ago, he'd hired a lawn service to care for his yard. Even so, braced awkwardly on a walker, he'd be outside almost daily to snip at the hip-high yew bushes in front of his house, or to slowly sweep up gumballs from the two trees he always claimed were such a bother, cluttering his driveway and sidewalk. At 96 I'd caught him up a ladder clearing debris out of the gutter and downspouts along his roof. I hurried over. When he wouldn't let me do the job, I held the ladder steady while convincing myself that if he fell, I might be able to catch him. Luckily, I didn't have to. While I was stuck at the foot of his ladder, our neighbor Robin across the street would shake her head when I'd glance her way. Later she said she hadn't known what to do.
Hank never got rid of his gumball trees despite 50 years of fighting their messes. Biannually, he had tree services trim them and his magnolia symmetrically. He could have removed them. He had plenty of money for that as shown by that sporty new convertible he'd bought about the time he turned 90. He didn't replace the gumball trees, I think, because of their looks, because they were pretty like his car. They have a lush, candelabra-like flower in the spring and showy pointed leaves that turn yellow, red, or purple in the fall. I remember him last spring expressing regret that his magnolia, like mine, had once again lost its blooms, frozen in one overnight cold snap near the end of another too mild winter. Brown petals littered his yard along with the always shedding gumballs. Other than that, he never mentioned beauty to me without prompting. Hank was a mechanical engineer who obviously saw enough beauty in cars to buy one for its looks.
Our niece in Detroit had just a few years before lost her brother. That was a greater shock than Hank's passing. Scott had survived two tours of Marine Corps duty in Iraq, a mechanic on vehicles sent out to patrol the streets. Somebody told me that casualties in his unit were colossal from IEDs, roadside bombs. Like many other troops, he'd come home from carnage changed. He felt out of place and volunteered to go back into combat. Returned from that tour, he married, lost his wife to opioids, and sought treatment for PTSD. Then his suicide. Like Hank, he was quiet, wouldn't talk much. Even as an ex-Marine myself, although I met Scott only three times after his duty, I felt useless trying to talk to him about his war experiences. Of course I lacked war experience myself, was a generation or two older than Scott, and knew how life cemented experiences good and bad on a person like a thick crust. He'd seemed strong to me, as if he were coping, but what goes on in a person's mind is always secret, unascertainable. Even when a person describes his thoughts, I have to wonder how accurate he's being. We are all to a certain extent mysteries unto ourselves.
Hank too was a veteran: WWII and Korea. A career man who retired from military service as a colonel. His daughter composed a newspaper obituary that contained this information. It was news to me. I knew he'd worked for years at Wright Patterson Air Force base as a civilian, but the obit said he'd also been stationed there as an Air Force officer. What his war experiences were will have to remain his secret unless I happen upon his daughter sometime at his house disposing of his property. Maybe we can talk then and I'll learn more. I wish I'd known Hank better. We were basically acquaintances who knew each other on a relatively surface level. He'd been to our house several times for dinners and parties, always as the oldest one present. I know that age difference creates something of a strain having experienced it a few times myself the last couple of years.
Perhaps the death of my father has something to do with my persistent thoughts about Hank. Dad died when I was 14. He was only 46: incurable leukemia. He was a musician of the saxophone, guitar, piano, ukulele. A baseball player. A handyman who built two entire houses himself. A veteran of the depression. He'd be about 110 years old if he were still alive. After his death, I habitually filled his absence by looking for male models in adults I met.
I may have done that with Hank. He heard musical rhythms as my father did. Maybe his daughter would like to hear about the time on my daily walk past his house I saw him dancing. He was in his 90s then. With his sports car parked on one side of his two-car garage, he was clear in the back on the other side of the garage at a workbench with the radio loud enough for me to hear out on the street. I looked for the music's origin. It was a salsa tune to which Hank was moving back and forth sideways in a cha-cha beat while handling something in front of him. His back was to me. I saw him in the yard later, mentioned the incident, but he denied he'd been dancing. "I don't dance anymore." He could have been unaware of doing it. I mentioned to him that my wife and I danced at the Michael Solomon Pavilion, and he said that he and his wife had square danced there years ago. He hadn't known the place was still used for dancing. I know nothing about his wife.
His hearing, his eyes, and his mind were sharp right to the end. He'd sometimes obsess, as we say, on his own world, as we all do, and so be unaware of people or happenings close by, like me walking past on the street, a neighbor watching him from across the street while he cleaned a gutter, a dog running through his yard, cars passing, etc. That wasn't senility. If he looked up, he'd see me and yell, "Hi Bill." Then we'd pass the time of day. We'd talk about what he was cleaning up outside, how hot or cold it was, how things were growing, how we felt. Superficial things. I should have asked him more about his life. Same thing with my father. I was too dumb or too young then to know any better. Probably I was still that way with Hank.
My wife and I were supposed to take him out for dinner on the day after we returned from Detroit. We'd talked about it on the way home. My wife said he'd been funny on the phone when she'd called to invite him. The first thing he'd said to her was, "Where we going?" Like he was anxious to go with us.
My wife asked if he liked the Bob Evans restaurant, thinking that fit his taste.
"Longhorn Steak House," he said. "There's one over there by Walmart on Dorothy Lane Road."
"When? Four o'clock? That's when I usually eat?"
I'd laughed imagining this conversation. It sounded as if Hank was trying to be funny. We'd been all set to see him in less than 24 hours after talking about it returning from Detroit, dodging the minefields of careless, aggressive drivers, but enjoying his attitude, the way he'd remained a meat-eater, etc.
Today, the first day of spring, with daffodils blooming, six inches of snow coats Dayton. I can tell you after looking at the weather radar there's a lot more snow than that in Detroit. I've swept off our car, cleaned the windows, shoveled off my driveway, sidewalk and porch, and I'm sitting here before a computer a bit tired from those efforts, but comfortable. I think the blooms will survive this cold snap. Warmer weather is forecast for today and the rest of the month. A granddaughter is in our pink guest bedroom so sick with a stomach ailment, she tires watching cartoons and falls asleep. This is great weather for making a snowman or building a fort. She's missing school and a chance for some fun. I'll take her home in an hour, then hike past Hank's house. I remember helping him chip ice off his driveway. That was about five or so years ago.
I know humans are separated by the very nature of being human. We have individual differences, and of course much can happen to sadden us. To alienate us further. Taking alcohol and drugs may create euphoria so strong, its pleasure tempts the user to go all the way. To end it all. Relief from the struggle of living. When wine or beer brings its peculiar form of peace to me, I can't help but think of the peace that lies beyond, and so I'm tempted to have another drink, and another, etc. I.e., my own going at times seems like an escape. Suffering from constant pain could surely make the end more attractive. I've been lucky to avoid that situation. Hank was lucky if his life ended as peacefully as his daughter pictured it.
It was this time of year when I visited Dad the day before his end. Held his hand. Joked about fishing and the upcoming baseball season. About my selection from a roster of kids by two of his friends who would coach me on a team in the Babe Ruth League. We didn't say we loved each other. I was learning to be a man, and the men I knew didn't say things like that. We just said goodbye. I cried in the hospital hallway, on the streetcar taking me to high school, and at three the next morning when I awoke to a telephone ringing, informing us that he was gone. So many years ago now.
I think my own end is what saddened me then and what saddens me now. Life is sweet despite death's presence among the blooms. Hank's departure hits me personally because the deaths of other people are losses for me. They reflect opportunities, good experiences I'll never have with those people again. Their end limits what I will enjoy. And they, of course, remind me of where I am headed. Fight or flight? Where can you run to? How can you fight? The surprises of Nature do not include our future demise. Only the details are vague, the when and the how it will happen. I'd have to be unconscious not to see the ever-present memento mori signs.
~Bill Vernon

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