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  • It was an oddly worded text. And so shocking.

    Ok, let me back up.

    I’ve been out of town – out of Pismo Beach that is – for several weeks. Ted was all set to water my garden and start the van a few times while I was away. Our usual routine.

    As I often do on these trips, I picked up several plants for him. Strange stuff that we both liked trying. I was looking forward to seeing the look on his face as we examined these fortuitous finds and discussed their likely place in his plastic pot garden kingdom.

    But, as usual, my stay here – whether anticipated to be one week or two – was running over time.

    I called Ted to let him know what we both suspected might happen – I was going to be back later than anticipated. And to ask him to water for another week.

    His voice was strange. Distant and weak.

    “I’m in the hospital.” He said several sentences into our conversation. “Steve’s watering both of us.”

    “What happened?” I asked, full of dismay and paying closer attention to his voice, the soft labored sound of it suddenly became more important.

    “Pneumonia.” He said. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe.” He said, emphasizing the word breathe as best he could with as little breath as he had. “I had to call 911 and they took me.”

    “Where?” I asked, thinking – not the VA I hope. Please don’t say the VA.

    Ted was still taking IV infusions twice a day to try to ward off a virulent staph infection that he contracted when the VA did a routine foot callous removal, on his remaining foot, several months previously. A visiting nurse came a few times a week to check on his progress.

    He’d taken the bus to Los Angeles to a better VA hospital the month before to try to get better care for the infection. He seemed stronger when he returned, but still on the IV meds.

    Kiki and Kristin had generously and unexpectedly sent him money to help with potassium medication that for unknown reasons the VA knew he needed but wouldn’t provide. He’d been blown away by that. Cowbird truly is an amazing community.

    So, there he was, in the hospital, talking with me, barely able to speak. He mentioned that several of our neighbors and our landlord had come to visit him.

    Finally he said, “I have to hang up. I can’t breathe.”

    “OK.” I said, feeling terrible that I’d kept him on the phone beyond his ability. And even worse, that I wasn’t there to help. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

    Before I called Ted, I’d been feeling almost desperate to get home. A nagging feeling of must be there – must be there in order to really become a part of the town and its people, its world. My new world. Disjointed. And now Ted, my dear sweet neighbor, in the hospital.

    The whole thing made me sick. Literally.

    Shouldn’t have taken on that second new client. She was the reason I was still away. I didn’t need to take her on, and she was turning into a real pain... I mean the money might be nice... and I’d been feeling incredibly financially pinched and stressed... but being away from the community that had drawn me into its bosom was no way to live... I wanted to go home. Home.

    I hung up the phone, feeling inexplicably sad.

    Today, just before I got in the shower, I noticed that Ted had sent me a text message the night before. Strange... he has a cell phone, but I couldn’t remember him ever texting me.

    Here is what the text said:

    Ted went home to be with the LORD...well, not quite, he is dead though.

    What?? I thought... what??!!

    Someone, one of his daughters likely, had his cell phone. And contacted those in his contacts, I guess. But, what a brutal message, I thought.

    Black... humor? anger? resentment? It all seemed to hang in the midst of those words on the text.

    At first, I was so shocked. So... sad. So... unreal. So... empty. Angst that I hadn’t been there to visit him. Grateful that I’d spoken with him when I did.

    I stumbled into the shower. A numb mess really. Angry that this would be how I would find out about Ted. Then the tears. Of course the tears. Mixed with hard falling hot water and the gasps of why is his daughter so angry, so bitter, so... harsh?

    Deep down, I knew why, kinda.

    Before I knew him, Ted – like my grandfather before I knew him – had been a raging alcoholic . A quiet drunk usually, but also abusive to those who cared about him. I’d been warned, when I moved into the neighborhood that my neighbor could be nasty, ornery in the worst kind of way – would accuse me of stealing from him one moment and be sweet as pie the next. A binge drinker. A charming lout. Just so you know... they said. Be warned.

    Ted was not living at home when I moved in. He was at the VA hospital having his leg removed. They’d messed up a treatment for his veins and had to remove the leg rather than put in a stint. Was cheaper, turned out. Makes no sense.

    The Ted I met, once he’d returned minus his leg, was a sweet guy. He never drank. He watched his diet. He’d learned his lesson, apparently. He was always kind to me. Always. We bonded over gardening. Over the love of the odd plant. Like me, he loved to talk to strangers and stopped all the tourists and neighbors walking by on their way to or from the ocean to offer them a home grown pepper plant or a tomato plant or a strawberry... or herb.

    Folks would just stop by his place, where he sat out front on his plastic chair and they’d plop down on the other plastic chair to talk gardening, politics, current events with him. Never failed... they always left with a plant and a smile.

    He often left me little gifts on the chair outside my kitchen door- harvest from his garden, extra herbs or lettuce from the elderly nutrition program (they send me enough for a family of 4! he'd say... how am I supposed to eat all that?), some fruit, some seeds, a plant.

    His daughter – or whoever is on the other end of his phone now – didn’t grow up with that guy.

    I met both of his girls briefly over the last few months. They each stopped by to see him recently – I hadn’t seen them before. Perhaps they came when I was away. Perhaps they had a sense.

    Beautiful women. Lovely. And... a little something. A reserve. A pain. Pretty deep. A hardness.

    We don’t know, ever, the true depth of another's experience. Their pain. I knew some of Ted’s. Just some of his history. A little snippet here and there. He probably wasn’t a great father. He’d have been a great grandfather though. Like mine was. Reformed. And repentant. A little wise. Still a wise cracker. All boy.

    The daughter and I had an exchange on text on Ted’s phone. I offered her the video I had taken of Ted talking in front of his house. She declined. She mentioned that Ted had sent a perv video that was still burned into her brain. Ugh. How terrible. How not the guy I knew.

    So many things I will never, likely, know about him.

    Other than – he was a good friend to me and all of his neighbors cared for and about him.

    From his other life – he left a trail of scars and tears it would seem.

    Interesting to think that if I hadn’t followed my gut and left Marin to move to a place where I knew no one and had no prospects... I would never have met Ted or Steve or Gary (my three stooges neighbors) or Rene and Aubrey across the street or any of the other couple who make up our block long flock of houses by the beach. Our little place on the Central Coast. Ted’s death – wouldn’t have been on my radar.

    This move to Pismo has been filled with death.

    I haven’t been home yet. I’m still in Marin. Still thinking I might leave tomorrow or the next day. Still aching to be back to my humble tiny cottage with the odd neighbors and the world there will never be the same.
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