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The Tender Neighbor

Eight years ago, I had major reconstructive foot surgery and was trapped in a hospital bed in my living room for months. I had a TV in front me, but never watched a show, as I found it difficult to concentrate on television for some reason. Instead, I listened to Billie Holiday and chatted by email and on online forums on my new laptop. And I read. But the reading is the miracle.

Seven years before my surgery, my husband and I had bought a house and began remodelling it. Before we moved in, a neighbor approached me as I exited my car. He began yelling at me about how our contractor was getting dirt on the street in front of our house. He didn’t even introduce himself before he lit into me, and he never once looked me in the face. I faced him and watched him shout while he directed his shouts 90 degrees to my right.

It took quite a lengthy period of good neighbor conduct before Henry and I started to speak to each other, beginning with “hello.” My husband and Henry began to converse on the sidewalk every couple of days.  Eventually Henry came into our home, and we became good neighbors, trading the contact information of service people, sharing the stories of our past lives (he had been a businessman and banker and came to California from New Mexico, where he had grown up), and, yes, gossiping about the other neighbors.

We were several decades apart in age, and Henry had a widower’s life while we were raising our two children. I learned that his wife had died not too long before he had gotten mad at me about my contractor’s work habits.

Then came the tumor in my foot, and the first person who showed up after the surgery was Henry. He had a book in his hand, The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer. It was a memoir that he loved and wanted to share with me.

I had recently been going through a spell where I wasn’t reading for pleasure any longer. I’d taught literature for years and was burned out from a schedule that required me to read and re-read on demand. I no longer had the desire I’d always known for cracking open a new book and devouring it as if it were chocolate cake (or baklava, more specifically).

But here was a gift from a man whom I had gradually come to value, and he was the first person to give me a treasure after a pretty harrowing four months since the pain began and through belated diagnosis and finally surgery.  I had to read what he had given me.

That’s all it took.  I began to read Moehringer’s story and was transported to his childhood as he was “raised” by the men who hung out at the “tender bar.”

The Tender Bar has become a memoir classic, and rightfully so.  What did I learn from this book?  That tenderness can come from the most unexpected places. And getting over “burn out” from something one loves happens in an instant.

Henry was diagnosed with cancer more than once. In October 2012, he passed away before anyone expected. His decline was swift, and he didn’t have to suffer long. I’m sure he would be thrilled if you read the book he loved.

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