Grief Stories~Sundays with Leonard

Today's grief story is that of a different kind. My sweet friend Anna from Random Handprints is sharing a story of a special friendship started to benefit the other person, which ended up having a lasting impact on her. She's sharing her story with us in the hopes that she inspires another friendship. Even though it's a grief story, it warms my heart.

When I was in my late twenties, I lived in Boston and spent my Sundays with Leonard.
Leonard was 80, lived alone, and except for Meals on Wheels and the visits from the home health aides, his social interaction consisted of: me.
I was a single woman - or as Leonard called me, "a career gal" which was really his way of saying "almost thirty and still not married."

I met Leonard through our local Friendly Visitors program, which paired volunteers with elderly folks who could use, well, a friendly visitor. The program mandated a visit of at least one hour, once a week. Being as I was a "career gal," I worked Monday to Friday and Leonard was an observant Jew, ruling Saturday out, leaving Sunday as our visiting day.

Sunday mornings I would give Leonard a call to let him know I was on my way, to see if I could stop for anything at the store, and then I'd grab "The T" from Boston out to Brookline making my way out to Leonard's apartment by around 11am. We would chat, I would help with a few small things around his apartment, and generally make sure he saw someone once a week, even if it was just for an hour, between 11 and 12.

I had been warned by the case manager when I first signed-up to for the Friendly Visitor program that sometimes the elders you were visiting wouldn't let you leave. But not Leonard. The second I said it was time for me to go he'd extort me to "Get outta the antique shop! Go! Go!" Some Sundays I would cancel, apologetically, and he would always reply, "What? You should be sorry for being young and having fun with your friends? Good-bye! Enjoy yourself! I'll still be here next week!"

After a few months of visiting, my Sunday stays got longer. Leonard, who was in poor health, could only walk with a cane, and with difficulty. At first, he would greet me at the apartment door and then retire immediately to the sofa. But in time, he began to take a walk to the bench outside his building and to wait for my arrival there. Eventually, he invited me to take a walk into town and that became part of our Sunday schedule. And in time, we even added lunch out together.

When the weather turned cold, we started watching old movies together - him for the second time, me for the first. Leonard would share where he'd been when he saw the flick the initial time around, and how it only cost twenty-five cents. I marveled that anyone could be - quite frankly - so old. His stories from his youth couldn't be more different than the ones from my own.

After about two years of enjoyable but perfectly uneventful Sunday visits, I lost my job. This was of course a crushing blow to me, but also to Leonard who was able to console himself with the fact I was single and approaching 30 by always referring to me as one of those "career gals."

Out of work, and with no prospects of work, I began going to visit Leonard two or three times a week, often staying the entire day. In the beginning my visits were strictly -- of course -- for the good of Leonard. If I wasn't working the least I could do was make myself useful around Leonard's place. Closets were organized and junk drawers were sorted. My newly found abundance of free time was being used wisely!

However, as anyone who has ever been unemployed can relate to, slowly but surely my peppy attitude began to diminish. After a few months, my jobless self showing-up at Leonard's place all the time had clearly become more about me and less about him. Gone were the cute career girl outfits I'd always put on to show the importance I placed on my visits to him. I started arriving disheveled, sometimes wearing gym clothes and sneakers (and not because I was coming over straight from the gym).

Instead of staying for an hour, I would stay a good part of the day, watching old movies and eating kosher Chinese food with a now 82-year-old man. While I'm sure he enjoyed my practically now constant company, Leonard began to take more and more of an interest in my future career prospects. He would clip job openings for me, call his friends, and friends of friends, asking around if anyone might be hiring, or might know someone who might be hiring a "really great career gal. You should see what she can do with the computer!"

The absurdity of the situation was not lost on me then, or now, reflecting back on it these 15+ years later. Somehow our friendly visitor roles had gotten terribly reversed.
Eventually, in time, I got a new job. And around the same time, a new boyfriend - a nice Jewish boy at that. He was even a lawyer! Leonard was overjoyed for me. Everything he had ever wanted for me was happening.

With the new job, and the new boyfriend, back came the cute outfits and the visits on Sundays, from 11 to 12. And not too soon after, the nice Jewish boy and I got married and moved out of Boston and to Manhattan.

For a while, I made visits back to Boston to visit Leonard a priority, but as I was still a career girl, and now a married career girl, the visits got spaced farther and farther apart. I wrote and called Leonard, but of course that's hardly the same thing. The one visit I did make sure happened was to bring our newborn baby, Molly, to meet him, her honorary Zadie, grandfather in Yiddish.

Shortly after that visit I received the heartbreaking news that Leonard had died. He was 85. It is impossible to put into words the sudden and shocking sadness I felt, and how long it lingered. Even today I still miss so much about him, both his kindness and his sense of humor. He was an interesting man to put it mildly, and it is one of the true honors of my life that I got to know him and his stories, and that he shared his hard-earned wisdom with me. 
A year after Leonard's passing our second baby was born, and there was no doubt that her Hebrew name would be an "L" for Leonard.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Being a Friendly Visitor was one of the greatest volunteer experiences in my life. I highly recommend finding a program in your area to make a difference in the life of an elder, as well as in your own.

Anna is a contributor to New Jersey Family magazine, Barista KidsWonders of Westfield, In the Powder Room and The Huffington Post. You can connect with her on her blog, RandomHandprints.com, on Twitter at @Anna_Sandler and on Facebook at /RandomHandprints and /InstructionsformyHusband.
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