Clayton was 76 when we moved next door to him. I was a newly divorced single mom with a 10-year old son that is pretty special. Clayton was recently widowed. He was the first to welcome me to my new home. He offered to mow my lawn until I had a lawn mower. I offered to pay him to mow and he said “you don’t gotta pay me. But I may need something from you sometime.” And winked.
When I finally bought a lawn mower, Clayton noticed how hard I was working to push it and came by and showed me the lever for self-propelled and how to adjust the speed. I laughed and said, “I’ve never mowed lawn, can you tell?” At 40-years old, I mowed my first lawn and it was my own. Clayton taught me several things about mowing the lawn and offered encouragement, “You do it a few times and you’ll figure it out. You need to teach that boy of yours to mow too!” In return for teaching me about mowing, Clayton invited me over that night to teach him about doing laundry. He’d been muddling through on his own, but didn’t quite understand everything so we talked about separating whites, colors, and darks and when and why fabric softener is added. “It’s so confusing,”he said, “the different temperatures and what the heck do you need fabric softener for? I never did it. Janet always took care of it.” I explained sorting and what temperatures with what colors and why and when to use fabric softener. He took notes and hung them in the laundry room for instructions. We talked about how funny it was that I’d never mowed lawn and he’d never done laundry because we probably didn’t realize we’d need to someday. “You just don’t think about those things until you realize ya gotta take care of it yourself, you know? I never thought she’d go before me, so why learn to do laundry?” He laughed a bit and shook his head.
Clayton helped me hang a medicine cabinet in my house, he also cut plywood to cover the screens in my patio to keep out the snow. He connected my house to his generator when a storm knocked out the power and helped remove an enormous tree branch that fell on the power line just a few weeks after we’d moved in. When the branch was all cut, he found some workers to come load it up and take it away for free. “Ya got any beer in the house?” He whispered to me as the two men loaded the tree branch into the back of their truck. I told him I didn’t, but could run and buy some quick. “You go,” he said, “I’ll keep ‘em here a bit” I ran to the liquor store on the corner and brought back the beer. Clayton told me to give it to them. I went to the car window and handed the driver the 12-pack. “Thanks,” he said, “but we’re still workin. We’ll just take one and you can have the rest. Looks like you’ve had a rough week too.” They each took one beer and I thanked them many times and brought the rest of the 12-pack back to Clayton. “They been workin’ hard cleanin’ up after ths storm, you know. They’re happy to help, but they just need a thank you. Sometimes, just offering ‘em a beer makes ‘em happy, you know?”
Later that day, Clayton asked if I’d like to eat dinner with him. He was going to grill brats and it just wasn’t fun grilling for himself. I said of course and he came over and we ate and chatted and each had a beer from the leftover 12-pack. That was the night he told me about his son. He and Janet’s oldest boy had been in Viet Nam. A few months after he’d come back, he’d shot himself right there in Clayton and Janet’s house. “It was hard on her, you know? But, the boy that came back from that war just wasn’t our boy anymore. We’d already pretty much lost our boy in that war. I guess she thought he’d eventually come back, but he never did.” I didn’t know what to say, but I just listened as he told me about his son and the suicide. It was one of the rare times Clayton shared anything personal with me. I remember being very grateful he felt he could talk to me so openly about such a painful thing. That night, he just pulled himself up after eating, shook my hand and said he needed to get home. “You’re a good neighbor,” he said. I laughed and told him he was the good neighbor for all the help he’d given me that day. “Happy to do it,” he replied and left.
The previous owners of my house had planted an apple tree before they moved. Clayton saw me looking it over one day as it had turned brown and looked like it had died. “Rabbits got to it this winter,” he said. “You probably wanna dig it up. I told ‘em they needed to cover the bottom, but they didn’t listen.” Later on the next summer, we noticed it had green leaves and one tiny blossom, “that little tree might make it after all.” He brought over a plastic cover for the tree to save it from the rabbits the following winter. He helped me with so many things. The most I could do for him in return is make him banana bread and offer him company once in a while.
Clayton stopped by the other day to let me know he’d be moving to assisted living soon. He’s now 80 and walks with a cane. He’s had surgery on his eyes so he can see and can no longer keep his house up like he used to. He sat at my kitchen table and told me how my son and I were good neighbors and he’d appreciated having us next door. He told me to keep the plastic on my apple tree at least one more year. “It’s doin’ good now! You’re gonna have apples this year.” He also said he just wanted to come by in person and let me know he would be leaving. I offered him coffee, but he said he couldn’t drink coffee anymore, so we just sat and talked. I thanked him for helping us so much over the last four years. He talked about how living in a house alone is not a very happy way to live. He and his wife, Janet, had raised four children there.
While he was cutting the plywood for my patio last year, we were in his garage and I saw what must’ve been dozens of Christmas decorations—large, wooden, lighted decorations. I’d heard stories from others about how his house would be completely decked out for Christmas every year. People would drive by just to see it. I asked if he ever thought about putting them up anymore and he said, “Since my wife died, I can’t hardly look at a tree anymore. She just loved Christmas. One day I’m gonna just sell it all. Get rid of it!”
Even though he laughed about it, it was easy to see the tears gloss over his eyes and he quickly changed the subject. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed him not wanting to remember. The first time we went to his home, my son, Hunter noticed a set of shelves full of photo albums. Each had the name of a location hand-written on it. Hunter asked if he could look at the one labelled “Tahiti” and Clayton said “Not right now. You get away from there.” almost with a scolding tone. A few years later, I told him I was finally taking a vacation. It would be the first one in 8 years. Clayton then told me how he and his wife travelled extensively and both had full time jobs. “People need vacation. It makes them happier and more productive. My wife and I took three weeks every year and went all over the world up until when she died. If you never take a vacation, what the hell do you work so hard for? Nope, you tell that job of yours, people need vacation. Too many are just working their lives away and then they die. You tell your job you need vacation every year—at least three weeks!” I laughed and told him how well I thought that would go over and he just shook his head. He was excited I was taking my son to Disney World, even if we only had four days. He offered to watch my house and take in the mail.
Over the years, I’d never heard much about Clayton’s wife except the little snippets he’d offer about their son and Christmas and travel and how she had a job that was similar to mine working with farmers and money. I could tell it hurt him to talk about her so I never asked for more. The first time I asked how she died (because I’m a nosy busybody), he’d simply said, “the cancer took her.” I didn’t pry any more.
When he sat at my table telling me about being lonely in the house that was once filled with happiness, I asked again how she died. Once again he told me the cancer took her. I asked what kind of cancer. He said it was “the female cancer.” It was strange to me that he didn’t say uterine or cervical or ovarian, but he said “female cancer”. I asked him if they knew where it had started and he simply said in her female parts. He didn’t seem to want to say much more. That’s when I said, “I’m not sure if I ever told you, but I also had female cancer.” He said that I’d never told him that before so I went on. I was 32 when I was diagnosed. Hunter was only 18 months old. I ended up at Mayo clinic in a 7 hour surgery. Clayton asked if I’d been ok since then and I said I had except for two minor scares that turned out to be nothing. He went on:
“She went to the doctor so many times. She went to a bunch of doctors and they all said she was fine and sent her home, but she knew something was wrong. Finally she went to a doctor and said she wasn’t leaving until they did tests. So, finally they did the tests. So, when you know something isn’t right, you need to make the doctor do tests. Did you know something wasn’t right?”
I told him how I’d had no symptoms and had gone in for a routine checkup when it was found.
“You’re lucky, you know. That they found it just like that. By the time they found it in her, it was everywhere…she tried the chemo and everything and it just made her sick. They wanted her to keep trying but she’d just had enough. She wanted to enjoy the time she had left and not spend it going back and forth to chemo and being sick all the time. So, we lived. We drove around the country visiting our kids and grandkids. Janet wanted to spend the time she had left living, not sitting around dying, you know?” I nodded.
“How long was it?” I wanted to know how long Janet was able to live like she wanted.
“It wasn’t very long. Only about 7 months.” He smiled a bit finally and continued, “You shoulda seen how mad she was when they showed up for her at the hospital room. You know, that hospice or whatever. She told them to GET THE HELL AWAY from me. She yelled at me. Told me don’t you dare let them come back here!” He smiled a bit describing how angry she’d been at hospice. He pointed his finger at the air and repeated her words, “Get the hell away from me!”
She told Clayton to call the family and let them know if they want to say good bye, they should come now. Her family members were able to see her and say their goodbyes. After a while, she asked them to leave her and Clayton alone. He held her hand as she slipped away.
We sat in silence for a minute. He was tearing up and so was I. Finally, I thanked him for telling me. He thanked me for letting him talk. I believe that was the first time he’d told the story from start to finish and I felt honored to be the one he told.
Clayton helped me with much more than the lawn mower and the plywood and generator. And without even meeting her, Janet helped me too. I wish I’d been fortunate enough to live next door to them when she was alive, but her story and his have changed my life. We need to live and die on our own terms. It’s ok to decide to live and not sit around dying. We are all sitting around dying, aren’t we? Spending the majority of our hours working; most of us in jobs we dislike, just for the chance to take a few days of vacation to maybe get our children to Disney World someday. I don’t want to wait until I’m dying to live like I want. I want to live while living is the only thing I need to worry about.
Clayton has now moved to assisted living and we have new neighbors. They have a boy Hunter’s age for him to play with. I know how to mow my lawn and I have the plywood for my patio for the winter. My apple tree is still alive and safe from rabbits. I also have the knowledge of my 80-year old neighbor and the story of Janet, who lived and died on her own terms. We need to visit Clayton soon. Hunter asks about him all the time.