The lights whirled. My head spun. I peered through the small square window of indestructible glass. My heart raced. I was uncertain. Was it rude to look?
For a moment our eyes met. I didn’t smile. My face contorted into an uncertain grimace. I wanted to smile. I wanted to open the door, and say something silly, grab his hand and tell him that I cared, and that he’d be okay, and that if he needed anything, we were here, right next door, where we’d always been. Well, where he’d always been.
I didn’t, though. I couldn’t. I was scared. Too scared.
Fear won. The moment between us broke. He threw his head back in mad laughter as he sat the rapturous clutch of pain, still too proud to show weakness. Age hadn’t crippled his stature. He was broad, tall, and strong. His presence commanded attention. His gaze settled upon the roof of the ambulance; I thought maybe I’d been wrong to look.
Tomorrow, he’d be fine. And when he came home, I’d walk across our adjacent driveways; I’d sit on the red painted wooden steps, and finally, like I'd been meaning to since I came home, we’d talk. We’d talk about the Olympics, and America, and the Phillies, and Berlin too. He’d tell me about Aaron, his grandson, my first friend. He’d ask if I was going to sit still for a while. He’d ask if I was still swinging around that little stick. He'd ask if I was going to get a real job soon. I’d shrug away the questions, and we’d sit in the contentment of that awkward ageless silence until I’d make up some reason to go home
But for Mr. Schidmt, tomorrow never came. He wasn’t fine.
I thought that he would live forever. I thought that he’d always be there, no matter where I traveled, to the store, to California, or even to Mars, Mr. Schidmt would always be there waiting - in his driveway, on his porch, or at his window - and when my car pulled in, he’d lift his head from whatever he was pretending to be doing, and he’d shout, “About time you came home. Where’ve you been?”
I’d laugh, and mumble to myself, welcome home.
He was a good neighbor. The memorable, iconic sort of neighbor like Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Mennis - always there, always watching, always equipped with some pot-stirring, ball-busting comment. A comment, that no matter how annoying it was, was his way of showing that he cared.
I was in the street running sprints. His gold car sauntered around the corner. Slowly, it crept beside me. He rolled down his window.
“What are you running so fast away from? Looks to me like you don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Nothing to run away from. I’m working out, Mr. Schimdt.” I grumbled, as I ran another sprint, away from him.
That was the last time I spoke with him. The next day, he was gone. It makes me sad. I should have been kinder, more patient. I should have stopped what I was doing, and had that conversation. Because Mr. Schidmt was important to me, more important than a workout. I cared about him. He was as much a part of home as the house I grew up in. And now, he's gone.
When I was young, I called him and his wife “Mike Schidmt’s” parents. They’d taken me to my first Phillies game fostering my devout love of the 1993 National League Champions.
They were kind to me and my siblings, but not overly kind. We'd watch every year, with our fingers crossed, as Mr. Schidmt pulled his ancient fire truck out of the shed and prepared it for the annual Berlin Fourth of July parade, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he’d invite us to ride on it. But he never did, and we never asked. We knew better.
An imaginary fence separated our backyards. Their lawn was a forbidden fortress of pristine green grass. The perfect place for afternoon cartwheels. Their garden was a ball-guzzling maze. We knew better than to chase after our balls.
When we did something that didn’t please him, we heard about it. He'd call my mom on the phone, “Motherrrrrr,” he’d say, “Please tell your kids to turn the music down," or “Motherrrrr, let your daughter Hannah know that she is not to call me ‘Old Man’ like her father.”
Despite the trouble he got us in, he was a good neighbor. He accepted us for who we were. He was real with us. He didn’t pamper us with praise or attention, but he respected us. I think, deep down, a part of him even liked us.
Because every Christmas, he’d walk to our front door, bang a few times – obnoxiously hard - walk in, just a few feet, say a few words, and then he’d stand there and watch as we chaotically opened our presents.
He never sat down. He’d just stand there, watching, and when he’d had enough, he’d leave. I'd never have a chance to say goodbye.
And that's how he left the world too. The old, strong, tall, proud man next door, the good neighbor who was supposed to live forever, had had enough, and left.
And when he left, he took a part of home with him. He won't be there waiting to welcome me home with a "Where you been, or what you doing." There won't be a day that I don't wish I had taken the time to say "Good Bye, Neighbor."