Long goodbyes

Mr Lebowitz was the oldest man on Earth, and his wife was just as decrepit. They were our next-door neighbors, at the house where I grew up. They had kids, I’d heard, but their children were adults, and had moved away long before my parents bought our house. Always in my memory, it was just Mr and Mrs Lebowitz next door, and they were ancient even when I was 5. 

Our families weren’t friends, or even friendly. Mr Lebowitz knocked on our front door only once, when I was ten or so, to complain that our dog had pooped on his lawn. My father apologized, and after that we kept close watch on where the dog did his business.

A few years later, my dad announced at the dinner table that Mr and Mrs Lebowitz had been in an auto accident. They were going to be OK, Dad said, but they couldn’t do yardwork, so raking Mr Lebowitz’s lawn became a new chore for us kids. And come winter, we shoveled snow off the Lebowitzes’ sidewalk, too. Dad thought this was just neighborly, and we kids thought it was oppression, but we understood it, and we did it, and anyway, they had a very small lawn.

The Lebowitzes recovered, but they were still old and my dad had no mercy, so we continued mowing and raking and shoveling for them. "It's the Christian thing to do," my dad said. You could argue with Dad a little, but you couldn't argue when he invoked God.

Even after I moved out and into an apartment of my own, when I visited I sometimes mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, or shoveled the snow, for my dad and for the neighbors.

Years later, my parents moved out of the house, and I moved back in, with some friends. We spent the next few years repairing and remodeling the place, so Dad could sell it. And the Lebowitzes were still next door.

They were always next door. Maybe they were there before their house was built, and it had been hammered into place around them. And of course, since we were neighbors again, I mowed and raked and shoveled for the Lebowitzes. Not because I was kind, but because my dad insisted.

My first Christmas back at the house, I was surprised to receive a Christmas card from Mrs Lebowitz. “Thank you for raking and shoveling,” she’d written, “and merry Christmas.” I meant to send a card in response, but I'm a jackass and it slipped my mind. I kept shoveling their walkway, though. 

The next Christmas, they sent another card. Well, I couldn’t ignore it a second time, and also, I was curious. I was 30 years old. I’d grown up right next door, but other than trick or treating when I was a kid, I’d never even met them. It was time to at least shake hands and said hello, so on the day after Christmas, I bought a pumpkin pie and rang their doorbell, and finally met Mr and Mrs Lebowitz.

It took them a looong time to answer, because (have I mentioned?) they were really, really old. When the door finally creaked open I introduced myself, and said thanks for the card, and lied that we had too much food from Christmas and would they like a leftover pie? 

Mrs Lebowitz said thank you, invited me inside, and insisted on feeding me a piece of the pie I’d brought. Why not? So I stepped inside, and it was the first time I realized that old people sometimes have a distinctive smell — it was in the air, in their house. I kinda wanted to ask how old they were, but that seemed rude so instead I asked how long they’d lived there.

“61 years,” said Mrs Lebowitz, and her husband added, “Since the day we were married." OK, damn — they'd been married longer than my parents had been alive. They were forever people, eternal.

We made uncomfortable chitchat as I ate my pie, and when there was too much silence I asked the next bland question that popped into my skull:

“What’s the secret of staying married for 61 years?” I was expecting a corny answer, like Never go to sleep angry, or I just do whatever she tells me, but their faces brightened, and they both wanted to answer.

He smiled and said, "Oh, my," and took a deep breath, and she interrupted and said, “Every time we say goodbye or good night, it’s the last time,” and he said, “Yup.”

I didn’t yet understand, so he continued.

“When I run an errand, I say goodbye like I’ll never see her again. I say a happy memory of her, tell her she's beautiful and what she’s meant to me, and tell her I love her — as if I’m not coming back.”

“And at bedtime," she said, "who knows if we'll wake up tomorrow? So just in case, we tell each other how much we’ve enjoyed our time together, and we say 'I love you' and 'goodbye', and whatever else sweet comes to mind.”

“Jeez,” I said with my mouth full. “Doesn’t that take a lot of time?” 

“Oh yes,” said Mrs Lebowitz, “it takes time, every time, and it’s wonderful.”

“We’re old,” said Mr Lebowitz, explaining the very obvious, “and when she’s gone I don’t want to regret anything I didn’t say."

“So we never leave it unsaid,” she said. “We say it all, every time.”

I asked, “How long have you been saying these long goodbyes?”

“Since before we were married,” she said. 

He laughed and said, “It started after we were engaged, though.”

“That's right. I remember, we were talking about our wedding plans, and then the conversation wandered all over tarnation, and we got to talking about love, and then about death—”

“And how worthless this world would be without you—”

“And of course it’s coming, death—”

“When it comes for one of us it’ll be the worst day ever for the other—”

“The only thing that could make it more awful is if we’d forgotten to say ‘I love you’.”

“So we never forget to say it,” he said, and then Mr Lebowitz kissed Mrs Lebowitz on her cheek and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said, and I swallowed the last of my pie, told them it had been nice meeting then, and excused myself right out the door.

As all this had happened, I’d almost giggled. It seemed silly or saccharine sweet, pure schmaltz and almost comical to an ignoramus like me, who’d never really been in love.

Some years later, I heard that Mr and Mrs Lebowitz had died. I never inquired about the details, but I do hope they died together. Even their first names, I never knew. They were just Mr & Mrs, and they'd loved each other, and they’d said it often, for sixty-some years.

Eventually, I met Stephanie, the marvelous woman who became my wife, and one night she & I had that same cosmic conversation that Mr and Mrs Lebowitz had mentioned, about the finality of death and never kissing again. Every couple in love probably has that conversation. The End for us seemed far in the future, but it was mighty sad talking about it, and in the middle of that conversation with Steph, I remembered Mr and Mrs Lebowitz at the house next door. And finally, I understood the silly schmaltz they'd been talking about.

One person dying is a tragedy, and it's even worse if you haven't said 'I love you'. So we said it, Steph & I — always. At the end of every day, those were our last words. Whenever either of us went to the store, to the library, sometimes even to the bathroom, we always said at least ‘I love you’, and often another sentence or paragraph about why and how much. The words varied, but three of them were always 'I love you', and always from the heart, because you never know which goodbye will be the last.



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