My wife and I met John and Rita about 30 years ago. John and I discovered that we both had been born on April 24, 1938. Friendship developed. We played bridge and tennis together and became the nucleus of a biking group that, I am ashamed to say, I tagged with the name The Awesomes: an acronym for Ageless Wonders Enjoying Sunshine, the Outdoors, Merriment, and Exercise.
John was an indefatigable biker. (Indefatigable? I had to use that because if I said “tireless” it would sound like he was riding on the rims.) On warm weather rides, he always faded back to see how our wives were handling hills and heat, while I was seeking shade and a place to buy a cold drink. I refused to feel guilty because how much help can you give a struggling biker when you are struggling on your own bike? John, motivated by his desire to encourage the slower riders, ended up logging half again as much mileage as the rest of us.
John got his golden handshake from Hewlett-Packard about the time I retired from teaching. Not content with leisure, he started a new career as a teacher of accounting. We talked about his experiences as a 60-year-old first-year instructor. I noted that unlike so many in the profession, John was fixated not on what sort of performance he put on at the lectern but with whether or not his students were absorbing the knowledge and skills he was imparting. He was troubled if individuals performed poorly on tests, and he strove to clarify his presentations, to communicate and to motivate. This trait-so laudable in a teacher-typified John’s concern for the happiness and well-being not just of students but of all of his friends and acquaintances. He was unable to be perfunctory in work or in personal relationships.
John and Rita left their Cupertino home to live in East San Jose and bought a weekender in Aptos, adjacent to a fairway of the Seascape Golf Course, to fix up in their spare time. which brings me to the start of my anecdote.
Working on their Aptos house, John and Rita became acquainted with an elderly next door neighbor. The woman (I’ll call her Abby) had lived there many years before her children departed and her husband died. It was time for her to relocate to an assisted-living facility. John volunteered to help her move. While packing and taking things to the dump, he discovered an odd collection in the garage. He counted over a hundred egg cartons filled with used golf balls. Abby and her husband used to walk the streets and pathways near their home, built along a fairway of the Seascape Golf Course. They would collect golf balls they found in the hillside undergrowth. Abby would wash them and pouch them in the egg cartons. John was not a golfer, but he offered to take Abby’s collection and store the cartons in his garage.
Not long after, John and Rita met an aged man who walked by their house once or twice a day. I’ll call him Harold. He lived nearby with his daughter, who looked after him while he eased into the shades of Alzheimer’s. Still spry, though mentally vague, Harold would walk the fairways near his home keeping his eye out for lost golf balls. John observed that Harold grinned with self-satisfaction and a sense of heroic achievement when he returned home from is strolls with a pocketful of balls.
After learning about Harold and his recreational walks, John began taking his own fairway strolls, his pockets filled with Abby’s golf balls. He would strew them where he knew Harold would be walking, in the obvious locations and in the not so obvious ones.
This act of secret charity and kindness reminded me of a story by O. Henry, “The Last Leaf.” It’s about a woman dying of pneumonia, watching the leaves of ivy blow off the vine on the wall across from her bedroom window, knowing that when the last leaf falls she will die. But she doesn’t die. The last leaf refuses to fall because an elderly artist who lived downstairs has raved winter weather to paint a last leaf on the wall behind the vine. The old painter died of pneumonia brought on by damp clothing and prolonged exposure to chilly temperatures. But what if it was planted golf balls instead of a painted leaf that made someone wish to go on living.
I came home from walking the dog that evening ruminating over the short story in my brain and intending to give John a call and ask some questions. What were the people’s names? How would the one I dubbed Abby have collected 100 empty egg cartons to keep the golf balls in? Did Abby and her family consume eggs so they could save the cartons, or did they just happen to find golf balls at the same rate they ate eggs? Was Rita perhaps secretly sending the egg cartons John was emptying to Harold’s daughter, so that she or Harold could store his finds in them? Would that be a neat fillip or a cheap plot contrivance? My story writer’s mind was seeking subtle ironies.
Sally greeted our dog and me at the front door. She was distraught. My wife was distraught. She had just got off the phone with one of John’s sisters. John had been home alone while Rita was meeting with her book group. He developed a headache that became so severe that he called 911. He was conscious when the paramedics arrived, but he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He had succumbed to a massive stroke, or perhaps an aneurysm. No autopsy was performed to verify the cause of death.
John and I were 67 years and 260 days old. Though his brain was no longer functioning, John was not finished with his acts of generosity and good will. One valuable golf ball remained in the egg carton. In accordance with a codicil in his will John’s body was kept on a respirator. Within three days doctors found a compatible recipient for one of John’s kidneys.