When Aya and I first moved into our house seven years ago, my next door neighbor Joe and I would exchange polite pleasantries over the fence. We wouldn’t say much other than “hello” or “how are you” here and there. I rarely saw him outside but based on our brief encounters, I developed an image of what I thought he and his wife, Bev, were like. Just a nice quiet older retired couple that lived next door. Boy, can first impressions be deceiving.
Once I started to get to know Joe and Bev better, it was quite clear they were not your typical retired couple. They said they never considered themselves “old” and didn’t identify too much with a lot of the “old” people they saw. This was not surprising when I learned that they both typically stayed up until 5:00am and slept in till 2 or 3:00pm. Not to mention the great sense of humor they both had. It was great to watch them wittily and lovingly zing insults back and forth at each other. Joe was the “hired help” that wasn’t “worth a damn.” Joe joked he was always trying to get fired, and Bev would say, “oh no, I’m not going to let you go that easy!” Then they’d hurl some more insults back and forth and we’d all laugh.
Soon after meeting Joe, Bev started suffering health problems that would put her in a nursing home temporarily. I would drive Joe to visit Bev and on those short trips we discovered we had a lot in common. We both loved music. He had a deep love for the Great American Songbook, along with classical, jazz, opera, and just about everything else. Not only did he love the music, but he could tell you who wrote it, in what year, the lyrics, what they meant, and what was going on during that time period. He just hadn’t really listened to any current pop or rock music since the Beatles came out. We eventually started hanging out listening to music. He’d educate me on the classics and I started bringing over rock and roll Like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, and even Guns N Roses.
That first year Bev was in the nursing home, we invited Joe over to my folk’s house for dinner on Thanksgiving. It worked out perfectly because the nursing home was just down the street from my folk’s house so we would be able to visit Bev before and after dinner. During our dinner conversation, we found out that Joe was my mom’s ninth grade English teacher! Watching the conversation play out was like watching a tennis match. My mom started by asking what Joe used to do for a living. After he responded he was a school teacher, that led to questions of where and what subject, etc. As the conversation bounced back and forth and as the questions became more and more specific, my mom finally squinted her eyes suspiciously at him and said, “Are you Mr. B!?” “Why yes, yes I am!” was his response. What are the chances of that? I moved in next door to my mom’s ninth grade English teacher! Luckily my mom was a good student.
That moment at Thanksgiving took our friendship to a whole new level. We’d go out for dinner. We’d hang out on the front porch in the summer. We’d hang out and listen to music for hours. One time he came over in the evening and didn’t leave until 7:00am! I hadn’t done that since the dorm room days in college. When he left, the sun was coming up and CDs were scattered all over the floor. Despite almost a fifty year age difference, we rarely felt it. We’d throw insults back and forth at each other and we’d laugh like two teenage boys when we couldn’t top that last insult. We weren’t just neighbors anymore, he and Bev were like extended family.
As I got to know Joe better, I was able to see how important music was not only to Joe, but also to Bev, and how it played a large part in their relationship. Bev and Joe were actors in local theater productions throughout Michigan. They actually met when they were cast as husband and wife in a play. So it wasn’t surprising how important music and the arts were to them. Even though much of the past four years were spent living apart for Bev and Joe, their love for each other had remained strong. Joe always insisted that they were more than husband and wife, that they were best friends. It was easy for anybody to see that.
Joe always made sure Bev had CDs or movie musicals to watch and listen to. Joe was excellent at this. He would have an appropriate song title at his finger tips for any and every occasion. Bev was similar too. They could both talk in song titles and lyrics. Show tunes, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, anything.
But during this whole time, Bev had been in and out of the hospital and the nursing home. Even when she was home, she wasn’t very mobile. Every time I’d come over, when I’d go upstairs to say “hello,” she’d always greet me with a big smile and a zinger of some sort. (It made perfect sense that she and Joe were married) It always amazed me how she could have such a positive attitude during all of her ailments. When you talked to her, she didn’t complain, she didn’t whine and moan. She was sharp, witty, and ready. I admired, and was amazed by the strength and courage she had to stay positive through years of hospitals stays, and nursing home stints.
Now Bev’s time with us has come to an end. It’s comforting to know all of her suffering has ended. All the times I spent with Joe these last few weeks has really touched me. It made me look at marriage in a different way. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who hangs up the towels or empties the dishwasher. It’s not about all of those everyday things we get caught up in. It’s about so much more.
I spent a lot of time with Joe while he prepared a music medley for Bev’s memorial. I got to hear the song titles he’d chosen and hear why they were so special to the both of them. Music was obviously a big part of their lives. Joe said they always joked that “their” song was Mean To Me, or You Drive Me Crazy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When they were in a Harry Warren production together early in their relationship, they found “their” song: You’re My Everything.
You’re my everything underneath the sun
You’re my everything rolled up into one
You’re my only dream, my only real reality
You’re my idea of a perfect personality
You’re my everything, everything I need
You’re the song I sing and the book I read
You’re a way beyond belief and just to make it brief
You’re my winter, summer, spring, my everything
I consider myself lucky to have known Bev. To have seen her strength. To have seen her smile and positive energy. To have experienced her humor. To have witnessed her relationship with Joe. To have seen how a loving relationship can grow with you. To see how love can last a lifetime.
Music can be a powerful thing. It can enhance the feelings at a great party or celebration. It can act like a time machine and take us back to a specific moment or remind us of a forgotten friend. It can help us say the things we can’t put into words. It can comfort us during desperate times. It can help us say I love you. And it can help us say goodbye.
Though my world may go awry
In my heart ‘t will ever lie
Just the echo of a sigh
I’ll see you again whenever spring breaks through again
Time may lie heavy between but what has been is past forgetting
This sweet memory across the years will come to me
Though my world may go awry
In my heart ‘t will ever lie
Just the echo of a sigh goodbye
–I’ll See You Again sung by Frank Sinatra written by Noel Coward