When I was a young girl, I had a neighbor named Frank. Frank was handsome, statuesque, intelligent, cheerful and terminally ill.
I grew up on a short street with only eight houses. The kind of neighborhood where everybody knows everybody. The adults chatted on the street, shared the bounty from their gardens, socialized on summer evenings, spent the 4th of July together shooting off fireworks, drinking cocktails, barbequing hotdogs and gossiping about whoever wasn’t there.
Frank and his wife, Jean Marie, moved in during the summer of 1967. I was 12, nearly 13. I remember because the next fall I started high school.
Frank was career military, an army officer and he fit the part to a tee, masculine, fit, well spoken, the kind of man who commands a presence. I was intrigued by him.
He spoke to me with respect, in the same way he talked to the adults. His attention made me feel important and I enjoyed our conversations over the fence as he took his regular evening stroll. His opening line, instead of Hello, was always, “Good evening, young lady, what’s the good word?” I never knew what that meant but he said it with such enthusiasm it always made me giggle.
We would talk about the weather, current events, the beauty of the sunset, and always made a point to inquired how I was doing in school. Frank impressed upon me how important it was to study and do well in my courses. He was one of the few men who seemed to support the woman’s movement that was causing some social descent at that time. He encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted of my future. I knew he sincerely meant me well. I remember, sitting on the pasture fence one evening as he told me that when I grew up, everything I wanted I could have, I just needed to work hard and stay positive. I didn’t know precisely what staying positive meant but I knew it was what he did.
Frank never had a cross word or disparaged others as my parents and the other neighbors had a habit of doing when they came together. Frank seemed to always choose the high road, seemingly focused on more important thoughts and topics, like how lovely the breeze felt in early fall, the song of a mockingbird or his latest reading into the life of Buddha. I noticed Frank always seemed happier than the rest of the adults. He never complained about politics or the economy, and remained hopeful that the best was on its way.
Which was puzzling to me since I overheard my parents talking one night about how Frank was going to die. He had been diagnosed with lymphoma just before he and Jean Marie moved in. He didn’t seem ill. He had lots of energy, swam almost every day during the summer, walked every evening, even taught me how to polka at the neighborhood New Year’s Eve party. He seemed better, happier and healthier in so many ways than any of the other adults. I didn’t understand.
The only time I heard Frank mention his illness, he was chatting with my mother in our driveway, “I’m proud to be known for many things, but I really don’t want to be known for my own variety of cancer.” Apparently, his cancer was unknown and his hope for survival hinged on experimental treatment. He must have been frightened by the bleak prospect of regaining his health. But you wouldn’t have known it, not by looking at him or listening to him. His outlook was always upbeat, every day, all the way up to the days before he finally succumbed to the unnamed cancer that defied the doctor’s attempts to cure him.
Now, 50 years later, I am the same age as Frank when he died. I struggle at times to remain hopeful about the future, to stay positive as he liked to say. And I wonder even more about the man who personified optimism and served as an example for me through those formative years. I wonder how, in the face of impending death, he managed to stay grounded in the now, and how he overcame the angst and agony of an unknown future to live sufficiently in the moment to enjoy the song of a bird perched high above and look forward to the change of seasons. How, while dying, did he live so fully?
I wonder about Frank and his precious secrets that died with him. They could have served me so well now. I wish I had more time with him and was sufficiently mature to understand then, what a tremendous gift he was in my young life. Reminding, me, even this morning, so many years later, that there is always a good word to be shared.