I stared at a bus schedule. To visit a friend out of town in New York, I’d usually ride the 7:30 and arrive early afternoon, in time for us to walk through the nearby Italian neighborhood. But today I was booking transport to the end of the line: my friend’s funeral.
I took the 6:30 train. The extra hour would allow me to saunter Arthur Avenue. A quirky variety store. A favorite pizza counter. A panetteria with outside seating. A small park designed for children and codgers. I needed to say goodbye to a street, a familiar cityscape. And to a person.
Taking in the sights and giving an occasional sidewalk nod, my mind settled on one line in an old playlist: “We may never pass this way again.” In 1973 the James Seals song bespoke an existential expedition. A lifetime later it represented a few blocks in the Bronx.
In A Place for You: Psychology and Religion (HarperCollins), Paul Tournier notes, “All our experiences, emotions and feelings are indissolubly linked in our memories with places.” He wonders if “the relationship of people with places is not more stable than that with their fellow human beings.”
I’ve rarely traveled distances to see what I could see or even to revisit memorable haunts. I gravitate toward destinations at which friends or family open doors. “Hello in there,” is my approach. I anticipate welcomes that draw me away from the stress of travel and toward its mercies. When a life-breath leaves the premises—by death or a less drastic vacating—the acreage loses its here-and-now attraction, and I no longer schedule the treks.
Yet there’s no escaping the landscape. Nearly every day my fancy momentarily turns to places I remember: my dad’s kitchen, my grandfather’s hilltop farmland, a creek bed alongside a campground. Even the ancients felt nostalgic for particular settings. Ezekiel for Jerusalem. Warrior David for Bethlehem. Jacob, surely, for the oaks of Mamre.
Later this afternoon, I’ll welcome a neighbor girl with special needs—I’ll call her Nina—who will eat a snack and do her homework at my dining room table. We’ll go outside, and she’ll help me water the petunias and peppers that flank my front door.
Nina has been coming by for five years, long enough to appreciate the stability of my household, the furniture never rearranged, the bushes never torn out. And she’s old enough to understand the cycle of life. My welcoming hello has opened a door to an eventual goodbye. She thinks I’m ancient beyond my years. Every few weeks, maybe when I cough, she asks a worried question: “When are you going to die?”
I answer calmly. “Everybody dies someday. Only God knows when. I don’t think I’m going to die anytime soon.” Sobered by intimations of mortality, I distract us by reading her a book, whether “for pretend,” as she categorizes fiction, or, conversely, “for real.”
Sometimes she sees something of mine that she likes. “Can I have it?” No. I need it. “Can I have it when you’re dead?” Yes. I make an empty promise that we both quickly forget.
Since my recent trip to the Bronx, I see Nina’s apprehension through a wider lens. My gift of time and attention—hours every week—has also been a gift of place. In time, she will miss me. She will also miss my dining room and brick stoop—the setting of our play and work—though that scape will feel vacuous without me. A door will be locked. The locks will be changed. She will grieve.
Do I prepare her for the loss? Only in small ways. I give her a few tangible keepsakes: a plant to set by her door, a picture for her wall, a mug for her juice, a light for her bedside. I encourage her to pray for courage and hope, and together we thank God for the present good. I never promise her stability all the days of her life, but I consciously welcome her into a sanctuary for a few hours on yet another day, until—like after church—it’s time to go home.
She will remember such a place. All her life, for real.
This article also appears in the July 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 7, pages 23–24).