In recent years, I have become fond of our friends’ widower neighbor, whom I call Mr. Roger. He’s 90 and lives alone. My friend, Heidi, and her husband have known Mr. Roger for a much longer time.
Their friendship took a turn 11 years ago when Mr. Roger’s wife of 54 years was on her deathbed in a hospital in Brunswick. Since the couple had no children, Heidi promised her dying neighbor that she’d keep an eye on Mr. Roger.
It was a promise made and kept: To this day, Mr. Roger is treated as family, having a seat at the table, be it at Thanksgiving or small gatherings. And it was during one such time when I met Mr. Roger.
Once while visiting Heidi and her husband, I did not see Mr. Roger. It turned out he was invited elsewhere. It felt good knowing my pal was not alone at home.
It might be a sign of getting old that I worry about the elderly and those without family members living nearby. It can be my own anxiety about becoming lonely now that our kids are out of the house, busy with their own lives. Perhaps I feel widowed, though in reality I am not, for having lost my country of birth and living in Maine, as an uprooted person.
Having grown up, as the youngest of nine, in an extended family in the Middle East, I am used to having people around. Back then, the door to our house was never shut. Family and friends always dropped by. Now, it is my spouse and I living in a house in the suburbs. Even a visit by the Bible-carrying young men in white shirts with narrow black ties would feel heavenly!
I also worry about those at risk of being lonely, or feeling lonesome: the homeless I see standing in the city’s cold streets asking for change; the returning veterans I meet at the university; the refugees living amongst us; and those on their own, in self-isolation or otherwise. Loneliness cuts across age, class, gender and race.
In our neighborhood there are large houses, all separated from one another by expansive lawns and long driveways. The dark front porches sheltering us from the world. Most of them, just like us, are empty nesters. We live in houses that were once filled with the sounds of children and teens, the noises of their friends coming and going. Now we play the waiting game, looking forward to the next visits, the upcoming Thanksgiving and the holidays when we will have them, and their dirty laundry, to ourselves for a few days.
We live in an unkind time. It helps to inquire about Mr. Roger or even to look for our own Mr. Roger. I imagine Mr. Roger embodies something larger: In him, I see my own siblings, now old and living on their own; the homeless friends I have made when waiting for the light to change as we discuss the weather; or my neighbors whom I hardly see, save for the customary waves when mowing the lawn in the summertime.
Maybe by worrying about Mr. Roger, or holding the door for a stranger, or smiling at the immigrant woman while we wait to pay for groceries, or pretending not to be watching the young man emptying his pockets to find change to buy gas, we try mightily to build and enlarge our hearts. Listening with one’s heart, to make sense of our complicated world.
I wonder if our ancestors came up with the concept of rituals and gatherings such as Thanksgiving to bring us together every now and then to share a story or a laughter. Or to mourn the time lost between the visits. It’s possible they, rich in their ancient wisdom, knew once the cities and houses got bigger, the human hearts would shrink. Probably, Mr. Roger and Heidi and family, know a sacred secret, the way my mother knew how to put together a dish from whatever we had at home, that human hearts can be mended with love and be enlarged when given the care. Indeed, while the gigantic universe could fit in our hearts, we’d still worry on how to fit in a world that scares us most of the time.
Reza Jalali is a writer and educator. He teaches at the University of Southern Maine.