Thursday, March 28, 2013

the friend


When I first met Neil, I was at a cocktail party at my parents’ house.

My parents have always been social. In the years since they started living full time at the coast, their parties have included even more of the rag-tag group they’ve always attracted: fellow retirees, commercial fishermen, builders, and just about anyone else they find interesting. Gatherings at their house are always fun, and although I still feel a bit like the little kid allowed to politely visit with the adults, these days, at least I have a drink in my hand, too.

It was at one of these get-togethers that I first noticed Neil. “Who is that?” I asked my dad, sotto voce, in the kitchen.

“He’s an old Swede that lives down the street. We don’t really know anything about him. Why don’t you go talk to him, and find out his story.”

A not unusual request. Over the years, I’m often asked to draw quiet people out at parties. I’m chatty, and I’m truly interested in people, so getting a conversation going with someone new has never been difficult.

I walked over to Neil and sat down. “So, you live down the street?”

“I’m retired,” he twinkled at me. Tall and ruddy-faced, he dominated the living room.

“What did you do before you retired?”

“I was a commercial photographer. I worked for Boeing, flying around the world taking photos of crash sites.”

Woah.

“I also used to write. I had a number of articles in Sunset when I was younger, with photos.”

Oh. He could have said “I was the CEO of Ford,” and I wouldn’t have been half as interested. A photographer? Crash sites? Sunset Magazine!

We talked for a long time that evening, as he told me the secret to getting published in Sunset (“Anything with kids. They love stories about family activities.”) and about his love of photography (I’m just one more idiot documenting everything with an iPhone, who also collects vintage cameras. He was experienced shooting with 8mm, 16mm and every lens you’ve never heard of).

We became fast friends.

Over the years, I would email Neil when I had something published, or with some bit of writing I thought he might enjoy. He sent me one or two-line responses, like “Good job, kiddo. Keep it up.”

And I’d see him now and then at my parents’ house. He’d been voted in as director of the neighborhood beach club and my dad said he was kept busy with the ongoing litany of complaints from residents. When I asked Neil about it, he just rolled his eyes. “It never ends.” We didn’t see him as much after that, but my parents regularly invited him to dinner when I was visiting.

One time, he said he would have made a pie, but was running late.

“Oh you don’t bake,” my mom and I laughed at him. “Please. A bachelor, living on his own? Baking pies?” He laughed with us, shaking his head.

The next morning, he showed up, pie in hand. “Just so you know I’m a man of my word,” he winked at me.

Another time, Neil brought me a vintage movie camera for my collection. “It’s my favorite.” A Bolex 155 Super 8mmm. “I know you like old cameras, so I wanted you to have this one. It works great. You should shoot a film.” We laughed, knowing it would join my other cameras, gathering dust on top of my old breakdown.

The last time I saw Neil, he was quiet. “He hasn’t been feeling well,” my dad explained. “We haven’t seen him much lately.”

We talked for only a few minutes, and he was definitely subdued. It was clear he was in pain. Before he left, he reached out and touched my face. “You sure are pretty.”

Six weeks later, he was in the hospital. He didn’t want anyone to visit him, my mom told me. He didn’t want anyone to see him when he was sick. I respected his wishes, but was grateful when one of my dad’s friends, who’d known him the longest, went anyway and reported back.

There wasn’t much to report. No good news, anyway. They said their good-byes privately. Neil was allowed to go home, but still didn’t want to see anyone. Because the directive from the hospital wasn’t “Go home, you’re all better,” it was “You can go home now, and prepare for what’s next.” My parents prepared me for that when I naively showed pleasure at his return.

Not long after, Neil passed. It’s been two years this month.

I wanted to write about Neil for a lot of reasons. To try to explain how a young woman and an old Swede became friends. To tell you that no matter the decades that separate us, there are interesting people out there with fascinating stories. Most of all, I wanted to tell you about him because I wanted you to know him, too. Neil. My friend.

Sometimes, I miss him.