“Dean died today,” my mom said, her voice trailing off in the phone’s receiver.
I didn’t fully process it at first. Dean had been a mainstay of my suburban neighborhood for as long as I could remember. How could he be gone?
“What happened?” I replied.
“He stopped to talk to Jimmy while walking Buddy and dropped dead.”
Buddy was Dean’s dog.
Jimmy was my neighbor.
Too close for comfort.
A shiver crept down my spine, my eyes set firmly on the ground.
My mind began to wander and my thoughts dulled my mom’s voice through the phone.
Dean mostly kept to himself in his house near the bend of the street, sitting in his garage watching TV with Buddy. He was tall and slender. He had a full, short beard and deeply-set eyes flanked by wrinkles. He wore large, thin glasses and had short, stringy hair.
About four years ago, while I was at home for the summer and still attending college, Dean’s wife fell ill. She depended on him for care. Dean committed himself fully to her and always kept his spirits up.
“How is your wife doing, Dean?” I’d ask as I walked my dog Coco around the bend.
“She’s not doing so hot,” he’d reply. “But we’re hanging in there together.”
Not long after she fell ill, Dean’s wife passed away. It was nothing short of devastating. She was everything to him.
Her passing thrust him into a deep depression. He lost weight, his slender frame becoming skeletal. His disposition grew bleak.
I’d walk Coco around the bend and see Dean sitting in his garage, paying no attention to Andy Griffith on his TV. Buddy was at his feet, as always, eyes tired from the summertime heat.
“Hey Ian,” Dean would holler from the garage. “Why don’tcha come and join me for a beer?”
I didn’t know what I’d be getting myself into if I were to accept his invitation, plus I didn’t drink at the time.
“Ah, I can’t today, Dean. Gotta get some stuff done for my internship,” I replied, not knowing if that was true myself. I took Coco ‘round the bend, stopping only briefly to turn and see Dean staring at nothing in particular.
As the days passed by, Dean would holler to me like clockwork.
“C’mon over, Ian. The beer is cold and I need some company.”
“I’d love to, Dean, but I can’t today. I’ve gotta help pack the truck for move-in day at U of I. School year’s just around the corner.”
“Yeah. Funny how life sneaks up on ya like that.”
I always had an excuse. Always thought I had something better to do. I thought I was cool — that I was in demand. I didn’t have time to chat. Couldn’t he see I had places to be?
The school years came and went, and it was my last summer at home before moving out of state for my new job.
“Wanna go for a walk?” I asked Coco, as if speaking to a baby. She’d jump, wag her tail, and run towards the front door.
As we approached the bend, I heard an all-too-familiar voice pierce the hum of cicadas in the summer air.
“Hey Ian,” Dean said, his voice noticeably weaker. “Been a while. How are you?”
“I’m great, Dean, thanks for asking. How are you doing today?”
He paused, taking stock of his emotions.
“Oh, I’m… Fine,” he muttered, his gaze rising to meet mine.
“Would you like to join me for a bit?”
I’d run out of excuses.
I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and smiled.
“I’d love to,” I said.
I pulled up the extra white, plastic lawn chair and seated myself next to him. Coco and Buddy played on the front lawn. M*A*S*H was on mute.
“How are you holding up, Dean?” I began.
“Not well,” he said without looking at me.
“Well, I wanted to say I’m terribly sorry for your loss,” I replied in a guarded tone, not sure how Dean would react. “I know how important your wife was — er, is — to you, and I never really got a chance to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Yeah,” he finally replied.
I shifted awkwardly in my chair, desperately searching for something comforting to say.
“Ya know,” Dean said, relieving my mind of its quest, “I don’t know what to do at this point. My doctor tells me I’m sick, but I know that. They pay ‘em too much to tell ya shit you already know.”
I nodded in agreement, not keen on derailing his train of thought.
“Not like it matters to me,” he continued. “I’ve got nothing left to live for anyway. I’d end it all today were it not for Buddy having no one to watch him after I’m gone.”
I felt my whole body tense up in response to Dean’s grim revelation.
“Buddy always loved you,” he said. “You two get along so well. I’d love for you to take care of him.”
Dean’s words hung heavily in the humid air. His offering was a responsibility I hoped I wouldn’t inherit anytime soon. Coco and Buddy continued to play gleefully, contrasting starkly to our conversation in the dusty garage.
“I may have no one, but at least he would.”
“Well, that’s not true, Dean,” I countered. “You aren’t alone. You’ve got me.”
A small pause.
“Do ya mean that?” Dean said, his face filling with a reserved hope.
“Yes,” I said.
My past behaviors begged to differ, but I did.
Dean relaxed in his chair. We sat together in silence for another minute or so. It felt like hours.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. Mom. Time to get home for dinner.
“Well, Dean, I have to be off,” I said. “Listen, I know things are rough right now and that you’re going through a lot. But if you ever need someone to talk to, just let me know.”
I rose slowly and put Coco back on her leash. We headed for the opposite side of the bend, toward my house. I stopped again to glance back at the open garage, Dean still gazing at nothing in particular.
This time with a small smile.
“Ian?” my mom said. “You still there?”
My mind returned to our conversation.
“Yeah,” I said softly. “Sorry.”
“You know,” she continued, “I never told you this, but Dean asked about you every time I saw him.”
It had been just over a year since I’d moved away.
“He did?” I replied.
“Yes,” she said. “He’d always ask, ‘Oh, how’s Ian doing? When’s Ian coming home? Buddy and I can’t wait to see him.’”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s, um.”
I felt a lump rise in my throat.
“That’s really nice that he’d think about me when I’m gone. Hey listen, mom, I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up and sat in my apartment, my mind racing.
My eyes swelled.
I began to cry.
I cried because Dean was gone.
I cried because I didn’t know if he found someone who would watch Buddy.
But most of all, I cried because of how selfish I had been when he was alive.
I thought about all the times I brushed Dean’s requests off, and for what?
Probably some bullshit.
I thought I was cool. I thought I was so busy. I thought I had better things to do.
I thought wrong.
I was blind to Dean’s need for someone to be there for him. I never made the time to connect with my fellow man — something I think people need these days more than ever.
I missed times to comfort him. Times to make him feel like he was wanted in this world. Times to reassure him that he was wrong — he did have something to live for.
I know I’m wasn’t the reason for Dean’s death. I know I wasn’t his savior either.
But one thing was certain — I failed in my obligation to bring a bit more light into his world — one in which he saw only darkness.
Our brief chat in his garage may have brought him some, but I had the capacity to bring more.
And I failed.
As I composed myself, eyes red and nose stuffed, I made a promise to never again write off those who need a shoulder to cry on. A promise to not deny myself the opportunity to connect with others on a deep, emotional level.
A promise to never abuse the privilege of bringing light into someone’s life.
It doesn’t matter how briefly that light lasts or how strong it is.
All that matters is that when it’s needed, I — and we — give it to others.
That we’re there for one another.
To be a friend.