The first time I saw him he was taking out his garbage.
It was a small bag, I recall; certainly small in comparison with my Olympic size, industrial strength parcel, bulging and leaking and tearing at the seams. Calling them Glad bags was clearly a cruel joke or an oxymoron, I thought.
Neither of us said, "Good morning." I guess we each thought the other one would. We both just sort of nodded politely and re-entered our respective neighboring homes. I was busy.
Having just moved in, I spent much of my first couple of weeks repeating the garbage removal scene - mostly boxes, pizza and otherwise - but I rarely caught more than a fleeting glimpse of him. I concluded that he must be the reclusive type, but truthfully, I hardly gave it much thought at all. I was busy, you know.
Years passed. The kids grew up, new kids were born, and the garbage was setting new records. Every once in a while I'd see Chaim (really Hyman, but everyone called him Chaim) trimming his hedges (I knew his name because occasionally I received his mail by mistake), but he was 'older,' probably retired, I mused, and we seemed to have nothing at all in common.
By this time we had graduated to the "Good morning" and "Snow coming" stages of communication, but that was pretty much it. And I can't really say that our non-relationship bothered me very much. I had plenty of friends on the block and my family, religion, and career dominated my every waking moment. You guessed it - I was busy.
I don't remember when things changed. It may have been after I invited him to one of my children's weddings. Or it may have been after we stood outside one day discussing the parking regulations on our block. I'm not sure. But something did change. He wasn't reclusive - he was shy, I discovered, almost timid, and we did have things in common, after all, like a really dry sense of humor. Out of nowhere, Chaim would say the funniest and most unexpected things with a face as straight as a cookie sheet and I would double-over and roar out loud. And every time I did that, the corners of his mouth would lift ever so slightly, as if to say, "Finally, someone understands me."
One year, after refusing dozens of invitations to join our family at our Shabbat table, he stunned me with his acceptance to "stop in" to our Sukkah - "just to take a look." Exceedingly bashful, he was in and out in about four minutes, and spent more time apologizing about "intruding" than he did shaking my lulav and esrog awkwardly. Chaim was born and bred in Brooklyn, but received very little Jewish education or exposure in his formative years. As such, his familiarity with law and tradition was quite minimal.
The poets were right. A tree really did grow in Brooklyn. And on it, a relationship had begun to blossom.
Early one morning, not long after that, I nearly tripped over a small brown paper bag on my doorstep. It was in the pre-9/11 era, so I simply bent down and opened it. Inside were three small tomatoes. I searched for a note, in the bag and on it. There wasn't any. It was several days later when Chaim, his face redder than the tomatoes, inquired how I liked his little home-grown gift.
"I'm not sure how ripe they were and…er… and …usually they're a little more firm," he excused, in typical self-deprecating Chaim style.
"Oh, they were great," I reassured. "Thanks."
The poets were right. A tree really did grow in Brooklyn. And on it, a relationship had begun to blossom.
But relationships, we know, are never static. Like any good tomato, if they are not watered and nurtured they can falter and wilt, and even die. And so, I decided to ask Chaim to become my Torah study partner. Mindful of his social reticence and near-total inability to take anything from anybody, I knew this was not going to be easy. But I really thought we both had so much to gain by it, so I began planning my approach.
I was certain that the timing and wording of the invitation were crucial and that I also needed a potent and convincing argument to counter his certain dismissal of this unexpected and perhaps outlandish proposal. And it took many weeks of mental scripting and rehearsal until the day finally arrived. We were standing outside, of course, (he had never, ever trespassed my hallowed threshold…nor I, his) chatting about nothing, when I realized the time was, "Now!"
I remember feeling foolish as I pondered my exaggerated angst. And so, I plowed ahead.
"I was thinking, Chaim. What do you say… you and I… study Torah together - maybe once a week, for an hour or so?"
I had done it. I felt the mysterious anxiety wash away in an instant as I braced for his reaction. Predictably, it was totally unpredictable.
"Of course! That's a wonderful idea," he said. "When shall we start?"
Well, you could have knocked me over with a Glad bag.
"When shall we start?" I bumbled.
Now there was something I hadn't prepared for.
"Um…well…I suppose… er…we could start…eh …Thursday."
Noon Thursday came and sure enough the door bell rang. His steps were very short and his gait, saturated with trepidation. I had never seen him wearing a yarmulke before, except that one time in my Sukkah, but somehow, amidst all the discomfort, he looked proud.
I directed him to my dining room table and invited him to sit and relax for a moment while I fetched some drinks for us. When I returned, seltzer and cups in hand, he was still standing - erect, as if he was awaiting roll call at Fort Dix.
"Because I'm waiting for you to sit first," he explained matter-of-factly.
Given his penchant for formality, I suppose I should not have been surprised that he also declined the seltzer.
His background was limited, but his grasp, curiosity, and inquisitiveness were off the charts.
We divided our hour in half; studying, in English, the laws of proper speech by the Chafetz Chaim (early 20th century sage and scholar) and The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov. His background was limited, but his grasp, curiosity, and inquisitiveness were off the charts. He commented on every passage we read, and asked questions that appeared to have been laying dormant for 50 years or more. 60 minutes seemed like 15.
Chaim rose to leave at a minute before one o'clock, announcing that his time was up.
"Thank you," he recited. "It was very nice."
I was surprised that he didn't salute me as he marched out, closing the door behind him. I quickly re-opened it.
"Chaim," I called out, "same time next week?"
He seemed genuinely startled by the proposition.
"Oh…are you sure you're not too busy? I mean…er…you don't have to do this if you don't want to. You probably have your own studying to do and who knows what else, you certainly don't need me to…"
"I'll see you next week," I interrupted.
Next Thursday, noon arrived, bringing Chaim with it. And so went the next Thursday, and the next, and every week thereafter. The menu hardly changed. The syllabus shifted as we completed various texts through the years (he even brought an old book on parables of the Dubno Maggid which we learned from), but he had to be forced to sit down before I did and the seltzer never did wet his lonely glass.
I marveled at Chaim's insight into complex principles. I often imagined that had he studied Torah when he was younger he might have scaled great scholastic heights. And those questions he asked, never-ending, revealed the incredible sensitivity that belied his reserved and proud manner. His obsession with fairness - to every single Jew, gentile, man, woman and child, animal and plant, and even to objects that were inanimate ("They're all God's creations, aren't they?") became a constant theme that permeated our weekly, hourly journey into some of life's most beautiful places.
Neither of us would dare say it, but we both knew it. Thursdays had become our favorite day of the week.
Sometimes our trip included rest stops, where we ventured, ever so gingerly, into forbidden personal waters - childhood memories, minor medical concerns, and questions of faith. Those detours were brief, however, as Chaim preferred not to stray into regions where the waves were choppy and unpredictable. As we got closer, I kidded with him about it and every so often those mouth corners of his would leap, not curl, and his hearty laugh would fill the dining room. I laughed with him and treasured those moments of bonding and true friendship. Neither of us would dare say it, but we both knew it. Thursdays had become our favorite day of the week.
It was a Tuesday. I got word that Chaim was taken to Beth Israel. He had experienced some chest pains and had possibly suffered a very small heart attack. He was alert and stable, I was assured, and would return home after some routine tests. For some reason he had no phone in the hospital and could not use a cell phone there. I hesitated about visiting him, not sure if he would be entirely comfortable with an invasion of that magnitude. But then Thursday arrived.
Books in hand, I trekked to Manhattan.
"Chaim," I kibitzed as I entered his room, "what on earth are you doing here?"
He popped up in his bed like a 2nd grade kid at the ice cream store. I wish I had brought a camera. His bushy eyebrows seemed to jump through his head. He appeared to be stuck halfway between bewilderment and bemusement.
"Me?" he blurted, "what are YOU doing here?"
"Chaim… it's Thursday."
On the wall directly opposite the bed was a large clock. It read exactly 12 noon. He looked at it. I looked at him. I thought I detected momentary and very minute eye irrigation, but it just as easily could have been my own.
Chaim looked fine - better than ever. He excused the mess in the room (as if I noticed or cared) and practically scolded me for bothering to come.
"They want to run one more test on me," he said, "but I think I'll skip it. I'll probably come home tomorrow."
I pulled over one of those ridiculously oversized visitor's chairs and began reading from our usual text. Chaim instinctively reached into the top drawer of the nightstand and fumbled for something. I was surprised that he had brought a yarmulka to the hospital. It seems he had begun wearing one in order to recite a blessing whenever he ate something. I hadn't known. He offered me a leftover yogurt and some apple juice from a sealed plastic container, but this time it was my turn to refuse.
The hour sailed by. Worried that my meter had already expired, Chaim scooted me out the door. I turned around for a final glance. He was waving goodbye while motioning for me to hurry out.
The next night, Shabbat arrived peacefully. A neighbor mentioned that he had seen Chaim return home an hour before. I didn't stop in.
For some reason, my sleep was fitful that night. At one point, while turning in bed, I noticed some very bright lights slicing through my broken Venetian slats. I looked at my clock. It was 4:36 A.M.
I leaped from my bed to look outside. Parked in front were two fire engines, a police car and an ambulance. In seconds, my heart surged and my stomach swirled.
"CHAIM!" I screamed inside.
Throwing on some pants, I dashed down the steps and out the door. His door was wide open. I gulped. I brushed past some formless and silent faces and squeezed through the narrow corridor which led to his room. I had never seen it before.
The setting was surreal, yet strangely unremarkable - like so many typical scenes in the movies. There was Chaim on the floor, surrounded by four exhausted paramedics. They had been taking turns for over an hour - trying to resuscitate a heart already departed. I anxiously peered into the eyes of the valiant heroes, but they would not return my hopeful pleas. It was just not to be. It seems Chaim came home for Shabbat and began his eternal rest.
Minutes later, I dutifully covered him with a plain white sheet and wept.
At the funeral, I spoke about the privilege I had to befriend such a gentle, sensitive, and unassuming soul. I also asked Chaim forgiveness for having ignored him for so many years and for my inability to answer all his determined questions. I pictured him wondering what all the fuss was about.
I returned home after the burial. It was simple and dignified. The January gusts sent shivers that pierced my sadness. I tightened my scarf. The block seemed very quiet. I paused as I passed Chaim's bare hedges. I lingered in the cold for a moment. So many scenes flashed through my mind. But there could have been so many more.
You know, we never really said, "Goodbye." I guess we each thought the other one would.