I haven’t lived here long, but I have lived here long enough to fall in love. And to hurt the way love hurts when someone leaves.
About a week before Christmas, I emailed my pal.
“Hi, Joel! How are you, my friend? I haven’t seen you around for a long time and I think of you often. So I thought I’d check in and see if you’re OK. Hugs from outer Linebrook! Love, Doug.”
As a P.S., I added my phone number, “if I can be of any help to you. Merry Christmas!”
I thought I was being gracious to an old guy.
When my wife Kristina was operating Time & Tide Fine Art on Market Street, Joel was there first, for every gallery event. A senior citizen, a quiet fellow, shortish and roundish and baldish, with large eyes that gave him the look of an eager owl, and a head freckled with age spots. He always arrived early. He wanted to choose a good seat. After witnessing his faithfulness year after year, I only half-jokingly suggested we should present him with a lifetime free pass to Time & Tide events.
You often saw him walking downtown, or found him at the Senior Center in the basement of Town Hall. Conversations with Joel were friendly and serious. He seemed to appreciate, deeply, every effort we were making to support the arts scene in downtown Ipswich. I loved this guy.
I was most amazed, and most pleased, when Joel showed up for a gallery event intended to benefit New Thing, the humanitarian charity that my wife and I lead in the former USSR. He was eager to receive our emailed photo reports. He wanted to learn. And, I guess, to be involved. From time to time, after that evening, a donation would arrive in the mail: To New Thing. From Joel. I always raced to send a thank-you via email. But he never replied. He was just always there, the next time, around the next corner.
Eventually, vaguely, I realized I hadn’t seen him or heard from him in a while. My chatty Christmastime email went unanswered.
I don’t make it a habit to scan the obituaries in each week’s Chronicle.
You realize how busy you are when you finally think to search online for a friend’s obituary, and find it, and it’s not recent.
“Joel G. Caverly, 74, died Friday, June 20, 2014 in the Ledgewood Rehabilitation Center, Beverly following his brief illness.”
June! Summer! What was I doing, while my friend Joel was suffering, struggling for life? I consulted my calendar. Humiliating results. As Joel was grappling with ultimate questions of eternity, I was deciding how to dodge attending a fundraising event, grousing about my wife’s obligation at a Town committee meeting, and — along with many fellow Ipswich residents — enjoying a leisurely summer’s afternoon at the Ipswich Farmer’s Market.
I wasn’t as close to him, in real life, as I felt to him in my heart. Wasn’t close enough for his family or friends to call me with the news of his departure. Wasn’t really in his world, like he was in mine.
I was stunned to realize that my friend was not only gone, but had been gone for half a year. Half a year? If his name had come up in casual conversation, I would have told you I was in touch with Joel Caverly “all the time” — or at least “frequently” — or certainly “from time to time.” Was my life racing by so fast that an acquaintance could fail to show up on my radar for half a year before I noticed?
His obituary was a revelation. This unassuming guy, an Ipswich native, had been a multi-talented musician, teaching music for more than a quarter-century in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean, where he lived for more than 40 years. By the time he left the islands to return to Ipswich, in 2010, he was something of a celebrity; his departure was big news there, and met with great sadness.
On Monday, June 23, I was sitting in the bleachers, in the gym at the middle school, cheering for my daughter, who won three awards. At the very same moment, a few blocks down High Street, the folks at Whittier-Porter Funeral Home were preparing for Joel’s service later that day. Unbeknownst to me, Joel had already departed.
“And so it goes, and so it goes,” says the old Billy Joel song. “And so will you too, I suppose.”
A couple summers ago, I began attending Ascension Church. I usually sit in the fourth row, on the left, under the historic plaque that commemorates Somebody Appleton Somebody. Behind me, on my left, there was almost always a slender, elegant white-haired lady. She had to move carefully, to and from the altar rail for Communion. Her high, fluty voice was halting. But it was soon more than clear that she was bursting with life. She charmed me with her killer smile, her twinkling eyes, and her love of conversation.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Lucy Appleton Potter, age 87.
She was enthusiastically curious. It’s hard not to adore someone who wants to know all about you. She was fascinated by our work in the former USSR, and I was surprised and grateful to see how she pushed her fellow members on the church missions committee to support the cause.
But enough about my stuff. After a year of after-church conversations, I wanted to know more about Lucy. So on her last day in town before Thanksgiving, I took her to lunch. The next day — I was horrified to learn, over lunch — she would drive to Connecticut, to her daughter’s place, for the holiday.
“You’re driving? Alone?”
“Of course!” Lucy squeaked. “I’ll be fine.” Then she paused. “Of course, I do have something of a heavy foot.” Her eyes danced. “I’ve always believed that the safest place on the road is the fast lane.” And she laughed.
Suppressing my alarm, I asked her about her family history. Was she one of the Appletons who appear on so many plaques at the Episcopal church? No, she explained. “The problem was that there were too many Appleton brothers for this small town. So some went to Lowell, and some went to Haverhill.” She rolled her eyes with a mock-smirk. “We were only the Haverhill Appletons.” And she laughed again.
Lucy was an avid traveler — she famously rode a dolphin in the Bahamas, and an elephant in Thailand, in her 80s — and old age was simply an annoyance to her. She loved tennis, and even after knee surgery, she was still intent on returning to the court. “Doug!” she barked. “It wasn’t till I was 86 that I realized, I’m elderly!” And she laughed even more.
A couple Sundays ago, Lucy found me during coffee hour after church. I’d been shooting casual photos of parishioners for a new online church directory, and Lucy was ready for her close-up. I clicked away as she sat on a couch, chatting with my seventh-grader, Lydia. After 24 years as an Ipswich teacher, Lucy wanted to hear about school. Eventually the conversation somehow wound around to a medical issue Lucy had faced in the fall. She was still outraged. “They kept me in the hospital for two weeks!” she fumed to Lydia, chuckling. “Two weeks of my life!”
Then, still smiling, she turned to me. “But that’s how it goes, at this stage of life. I’m not getting in enough tennis!”
And she laughed yet again.
She chose her favorite from among the photos I’d shot, and that afternoon I put it in the directory. Barely 100 hours later, in the midst of a lovely dinner out with a friend, Lucy’s beautiful heart decided it couldn’t keep up with her anymore.
“Life is short,” the minister says at the end of every service, “and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who journey the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.”
But I’m happy I was in her world. Close enough to get the news, when she slipped away.
Her funeral was Saturday. It was full of laughter. No surprise.
“And so it goes, and so it goes….”