A Lonely Man Has Died
My next-door neighbour died yesterday. His name was Victor. I didn’t know his last name.
I want to tell you a little bit about him, the neighbourhood that ignored him, and how the smallest acts of kindness can really matter.
Victor was probably in his mid-70s. He lived alone since his mother passed 20-odd years ago. He had a sister and two nieces, both out of town. In our three years living next door to each other, only one person ever came to visit him.
Despite living in the same house almost his whole life, nobody seemed to know him. The couple on the other side of us has lived there for 40 years. They had some sort of beef with Victor’s mother and hadn’t said hi to him in decades. They thought he was weird.
His other next-door neighbour came by last night as the firefighters who discovered him were parked outside his house. She lived next to him for a dozen years and had never talked to him. This morning I waved at another guy who’s lived on the street forever and said “Sad news about Victor, hey?” He shrugged, said “I didn’t know him,” and walked on.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot today, and I remembered something he told me soon after we moved in. We were getting ready for Hallowe’en. He came over and started as he always did, about the weather. It usually ends there but before he left he said “You know, I don’t know what happened but no one comes to my house on Hallowe’en anymore. They used to. I’m always there with candy. But no one ever comes.”
It was one of the saddest things I ever heard.
Of course, I knew what happened. Victor seemed strange. Who lives alone like that, for so long? Why doesn’t anyone ever visit him? I’m sure the neighbourhood kids, and their parents, talked about him. I’m sure kids were cautioned to stay away. He was someone to worry about, to be scared of.
This is how a community came together to create a lonely man.
I only knew him a bit because of my wife. They talked almost every day. He was always out in his backyard tending to his flowers, and he and my wife bonded over gardening. While I did my best to avoid him, she lingered, engaged and intentional as he gave advice on her plants or predictions about the weather.
Earlier this year he gave her his keys and the contact information for his sister and niece, in case anything happened. I think he’d been waiting years for someone to give that to.
By a stroke of fate I got to see his art collection a couple of weeks ago. His hands started shaking a lot recently and every Wednesday someone came to his house to help him pay his bills on his computer. She couldn’t come one week and he knocked on our door, no doubt hoping for my wife. She was out, so he asked if I could help. I really didn’t want to. But I did. When we were done (it took all of seven minutes), he asked if I wanted a tour. I didn’t, but what could I say?
The next 20 minutes were among the best I’d spent in a long time.
Victor’s art wasn’t fancy or expensive, but he loved it. He remembered where and when he bought each piece, he knew a bit about each artist, and was especially proud of the Canadians. He said he liked pictures with lots of colours and action. They were happy paintings. So many were of, or near, Toronto. I think he loved his city. I lost myself in his simple, but thoughtful, words of appreciation and admiration for the artists and their work.
While we walked around he told me about his brother-in-law, the engineer, who he said worked himself to death. He didn’t believe in that. He worked a regular 9–5 job at one of the big banks, doing something administrative. He retired early. He seemed proud of the choices he’d made.
He said he’d show us his whole art collection someday soon; we needed much more time to see it all. I was genuinely looking forward to that.
Victor was a nice man. A kind man. He was big, but he seemed very fragile. He was shy, but in overhearing his conversations with my wife he was not short on opinions. He gave my two-year-old a painting of a ballerina. He was patient; he would sit on his front lawn for hours, carefully pulling out each weed, always in his overalls. He loved his routine; every day he took his trolley and walked to do his chores, walked home, almost always in khaki pants and a button-down. He wasn’t weird. He was the product of living alone for so long. He lived the best life he could.
Victor deserved to have his story told, but there’s really no one to tell it. I’m sad that this is the best I can do. There are lots of lonely people in the world. I happened to be put in a place to get to know one of them. I didn’t really do much with that chance. When he wanted to talk I always had another place I’d rather be; those conversations ended as soon as I could make them. Like the neighbours around me, Victor’s obvious loneliness wasn’t enough for me to care.
My wife always made the time. She mattered to him. I think his last couple of years were happier because he felt he had a friend. Genuine kindness happens when you’d rather be doing something else.
We’ll miss you Victor. You were a good neighbour. As my nine-year-old daughter said, I wish we got to know you better.
I think maybe we’ll sit on your stoop this Hallowe’en and give out candies on your behalf. We’ll see if anyone comes.