Lessons from Mike

My favorite neighbor passed away last week. While his passing leaves me sad both for him and his family, I'm also grateful that our paths crossed. I'm happy I had the chance to get to know him, and I learned a lot about life just by observing him.

I met Mike* when I moved into my condo/apartment complex back in 2012. It was a beautiful, autumn day and I stood outside while movers brought my belongings up the flight of steps into my unit. As I watched the men carry my couch up the stairs,  I noticed the exterior door open in the unit directly below mine. A very elderly man shuffled out, closed the door behind him, then made his way to where I stood.

He stood about 6ft 3in tall, and even though he needed a cane to help steady his walking, his back was ramrod straight, his smile bright, and he wore his World War II veteran's cap proudly. He smiled, loudly introduced himself as Mike, and shook my hand. His skin was papery-dry, but his strong grip surprised me. He might be over 90 years old, but he certainly wasn't frail.

I told him my name was Nancy, and we started to talk. I noticed right away that he had trouble hearing -- he spoke very loudly and had difficulty understanding me. Even with hearing aids, I needed to speak loudly in order for him to understand me. Mike apologized for that. He explained that his hearing problems started when he was young, serving on the deck of an aircraft carrier during World War II. South Pacific. Seems the noise of the guns and airplanes took its toll on his hearing. Back then, hearing protection wasn't standard issue on a carrier.

I smiled and told him that it wasn't a problem. I also thanked him for his service. He smiled back at me, saluted, welcomed me to the neighborhood, then said he needed to get on with his morning walk. He shuffled off for about an hour of walking around the neighborhood, something he did each morning and afternoon. It seems he liked being active, even at 93 years of age.

Mike taught me a lot about living a good life. He didn't teach me directly, though -- that wasn't his way.

I came to learn that his wife of over 65 years had passed away just a few months before I moved in. For the first year or so, I'd sometimes hear him crying through our open windows or through the walls (the walls are pretty thin here), or see him sitting on his front porch, seemingly lost in memory and with a few tears streaming down his face. I couldn't imagine dealing with the loss of someone who'd been that close for so long. He really missed her and was confident enough in himself that he didn't care if other people saw his occasional bouts of grief. But when I (later) asked Mike about her, he didn't talk about being sad. Instead, he spoke of their love, their life together, their wonderful kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Always positive, always loving, always kind, always smiling.

I helped Mike when I could: I showed him how to use his new cell phone, helped him walk to the coffee shop when the sidewalks were icy, and even cooked for him and got his groceries from time to time. I never knew my grandfathers, so it was nice for me to have someone grandfatherly in my life. It just felt right, somehow, to lend a hand when his family or friends couldn't be around.

Mike seemed to have a smile on his face constantly and never spoke a bad word about anyone, at least that I ever heard. He loved talking to people, loved his family, and especially loved spending time doting on his great-grandchildren (a toddler and an infant). Love of family and friends was the most important thing to him. Whenever I sat down with him, he never wanted to talk about his career or his time in the Navy or the state of the world today -- he simply wanted to talk about family, friends, life, and love.

To him, nothing else mattered.

As the seasons passed, Mike's walking slowed and his hearing loss worsened. But that didn't stop his smiling. By December of 2014, his COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, from smoking during his younger years) worsened and he didn't walk as much. He still smiled, though, even though he was effectively homebound now.

His family still visited, and I dropped in occasionally just to check up on him. It was clear his health was failing, although he still had nothing but smiles and kind words for everyone. And tickles for his great-grandkids. Everyone delighted in the tickles!

After his passing, I've been thinking about Mike and what he taught me:

  • Focus on the good things in life, whatever that is for you.
  • Family and friends are extremely important.
  • Love is really what matters.
  • Be kind and loving as much as possible.
  • It's OK to feel your feelings.
  • It's OK to ask for and accept help.
  • Stay active.
  • Complaining about things you can't control doesn't do you, or anyone else, any good.

Best wishes to you, Mike, in your journey, and my condolences to your family. Thanks for welcoming me to the neighborhood and being my friend.

*Not his real name.

All content copyright Nancy Rynes, 2015. Please read disclaimer and Legal Notes here.