"Oh no." I mumble to myself, knowing that if we cross paths this man will have my ear for about an hour.
Freddy is an altar server at my church. He walks from his small apartment on Terry Street to daily morning mass, and after that to Carl Emmer's Deli for a ham sandwich, old-school candy and orange juice. Freddy has lived in this town for the past seventy one years, the span of his entire life.
This morning is chilly. It's that time of year when summer has finally given way to the first frost of fall, shocking marigolds that are still standing strong in the neat gardens of suburbia. When we cross paths, his greeting is warm. He peers into the stroller to see big brother, who is only a few months old.
Freddy's nose is running a bit, and holding my expression as steady as possible so I don't appear grossed out, I rummage through my baby bag for a tissue, and hand it to him. Always dressed in his Sunday best for daily mass, I can see Freddy's maroon suit jacket from 1975 peeking out of the top of his soiled winter coat.
The conversation goes in circles, partly because Freddy is mentally disabled, and partly because Freddy is very lonely. He speaks about his mother fondly, always in the present tense, but this morning I find out she has been dead for the last twenty years.
"Where are you going today?" I ask, figuring I'm stuck on this sidewalk for the next forty minutes, at least.
"Well, I need to visit Mama. Ya know she's up there by you, near your block. Boy, how she loves flowers, and told me a whole lot of things about livin' on my own because she knew that she would not always be around. God called her home and now I visit her from time to time at St. Francis Cemetery."
My heart breaks. I've been passing this guy every day for two months. The first time I said hello the encounter turned into an hour conversation about Peanuckle and his days in the military. I realize today that he is completely alone, and completely vulnerable in a world full of people too busy to listen to him, too busy to love him, just like me.
"You lost your mother? I'm so sorry, Freddy." I say, full of remorse for dreading seeing him.
We become friends. A year passes. I have him over for barbecues, dinner; we talk on the phone. I bring him groceries once a week. Banging on the door with my packages in the narrow, dark hallway of his apartment building, I can hear him mumbling to himself, and talking to his mother. I have visions of the movie Psycho, but I'm not afraid. This man is one of the greatest people I've ever met.
He's hard of hearing, but eventually he opens the door. I put the packages on his kitchen table moving aside newspapers, mail and mass bulletins. On the wall there is a cork board with faded yellow notes and a line of pictures of priests. They are the pastors that Freddy has served under as a volunteer. Eighty years of pastors, and he has stories about each one.
We sit at his table and I just listen. I hear the abuse he endured over the years as a disabled man. Few people in his life take the time to know Freddy, except his adopted mother, "Mama." Again I feel ashamed for my early judgement of him, and as I listen to him tell stories of his life, I silently discern who has shown him kindness, and who has not. Freddy is not bitter. He sees the good in all people. Freddy is a beautiful person, perfect in his simplicity. As he talks, I wish I could be that perfect in my view of others.
In the kitchen cupboard there are about a hundred plastic bags of all types. Freddy doesn't waste anything. I can feel Mama's presence in the apartment. Evidence of her life is everywhere: knitted dolls, hand sewn blankets, an old cookie jar and religious relics fill the small space.
"Mama is here, watching over him, and she wants me to help." I think.
Christmas comes and Freddy joins my family for my big Christmas Eve fish extravaganza. My family piles presents on him, and his humble appreciation and joy teaches us all about the true meaning of the holiday.
I stop seeing Freddy on my daily walks. I call him and find out he has a very swollen leg and cannot leave his apartment. I keep bringing groceries to him.
One morning my pastor calls. A social worker found Freddy on his living room floor and he is in the hospital. I gasp. Freddy passes away.
I find out that Freddy had cancer and was dying, but his doctors did not tell him. He didn't know he was dying and he was joyful. He walked. He considered his role at church a job of great importance. He lived, serving God to the last moments of his life. A saint with a poor man's grave, Freddy changed me for the better spiritually.
His funeral mass is packed. It turns out that many people are touched by his service to the church. Three priests are present on the altar. I have the honor of doing a reading. It's about how the meek on Earth will be great leaders in heaven, given very important jobs by God. It is fitting. I can not erase his address in my phone book. Every time I pass the point on Main Street where we met each day I see him in my mind's eye, hobbling on the sidewalk, a peaceful smile on his face. Thank you Freddy.
This post was inspired by an essay in Life is a Verb by Patti Digh called "Say Hi to Yaron." The writing prompt is "Make note of the opportunities you've had to meet someone new- and note why you didn't."