Right? Wrong? Who knows?

Friendship takes a strange turn

"And no one exists alone;

"Hunger allows no choice

"To the citizen or the police;

"We must love one another or die."

-- W.H. Auden

"Why don't you go next door and visit with Bill? I know he would enjoy it, and I think you would too." I was home from college for the weekend and was sitting with my mother drinking coffee at her round kitchen table that Saturday morning. Bill was our next-door neighbor, whom I knew only from waving at him as he mowed his lawn over the years. When I drove in that Friday evening, I was surprised to find him at that same table, casually talking with my mother. He gave me a big smile, a firm handshake, and said, "I'll let you two catch up," then slipped out the back door.

My dad had died that previous year; victim of a massive heart attack at just 53 years of age. I knew my mom was lonely, and it was clear she appreciated the company of our neighbor. I was happy for her, though as a college junior I was still dealing with not only the sudden loss of my father but navigating that puzzling journey to adulthood. Bill seemed like he had real possibilities for her.

She filled me in on his background. He was a geologist who worked for the state and had never been married. I also assumed it didn't hurt that he was a handsome man with silver hair and the same age as she was. "He can talk about any subject!" my mom enthused. "I think you two would hit it off." I thought to myself that what she really wanted was for me to be kind of a recon patrol for her, sniff him out, see what he thought of her. I would later realize I was dead wrong, always underestimating my mother's intuition. So later that same evening I walked over and rang his doorbell. He met me at the open door with a friendly smile. "Come on in," he waved with his hand, "and let's talk some."

We quickly formed a ritual. Every time I would come home for the weekend to visit my mom, we would talk that Saturday night, usually for several hours. Bill quickly became a mentor for me. Every visit would start with an update on how school was going, what was I learning, and he was always there with sage advice on my romantic life or how to deal with fussy professors. As my mom had said, he indeed seemingly knew about everything, but his biggest enjoyment would be regaling me with tales of geology and the projects he was working on. "Our future is in the history of those rocks," he used to like to say. For a young man needing guidance and assurance, he became my step-stone, a kind of father figure who never tried to replace my dad but always offered his take on his own journey. He was kind to me. He would listen. He never judged me.

The possible romance between my mom and him slowly disappeared -- to my mother's chagrin -- but she always encouraged my visits. I did wonder occasionally why a man so vital and interesting seemed never to date or go out with women. When I would ask he would chuckle and say, "I just never found the right one." I naturally thought maybe there was other reasons.

Then during one visit late in my senior year, it happened. As we were talking he suddenly asked me, "Do you like me? I mean, how do you really feel about me?" I took it the wrong way. Maybe I took it the right way. I made a clumsy answer about friendship and quickly excused myself. It was my last visit.

Looking back, I wished instead of a hard line I had taken a softer one. He was a good man. He helped me deal with losing my dad. Perhaps if I had looked more closely that night, the dark shadow that hung in that room was only loneliness. And loneliness can wait for us all. He died several years later. He died alone.

NAN Our Town on 05/16/2019

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