Jack stopped me while I was mowing to introduce himself and talk to me about the property line. I didn’t have the land surveyed before we moved in and he no longer remembered precisely where the line fell. The border might not be exactly where he stopped mowing. It could be up the bank or in the ditch but if I wanted to put up a fence, I should probably get it surveyed beforehand. It turned out that neither of us cared where the line was and neither wanted a fence. He continued to mow down the bank and I picked it up at the ditch.
Once or twice in our lives, if we are lucky, we meet someone who is meant to be a genuine, hundred percent friend. On a summer day in 2017 my youngest son Jacob found one of his. While we chatted, he snuck around behind Jack, tapped him on the leg and then jumped to hide behind the bushes. Jacob instinctively knew this stranger would appreciate his brand of humor.
What in the world makes a man in his mid-eighties and a four-year-old who aren’t related and not much alike want to be friends? The endless energy of Jacob propelled him towards activities like repeatedly ringing their doorbell and then hiding. Not really the kind of hobby that should endear him to a man 82 years his senior. And you wouldn’t think that a high energy, ready to rumble boy would hang out long enough to build deep friendship while watering tomatoes. Soon all of Jack’s friends knew about his friend Jacob and everyone Jacob knew had heard about Jack and Shirley. He called Shirley “Jack’s mom”. A few who knew Jacob were confused when told Jack had broken his hip because they had assumed the two were the same age.
Our last conversation before Jack broke his hip was a few feet away. For the last time he interrupted my mowing to let me know how much he and Shirley appreciated and valued my boys, and how much they enjoyed Jacobs daily visits. Visits that wouldn’t have started if a fence had divided our yards. In the time between those conversations he had stopped me many times, always to talk about my sons and always especially Jacob.
“Love Thy neighbor” doesn’t need explanation in the south. We all know the story, know Jesus said it and who he directed it to. Its an innocuous, uncontroversial statement that everybody agrees with until we sit down to define love and discuss who is my neighbor. Humanity hasn’t really learned all that much in two thousand years after all. We’ve placed so many caveats in the conversation that we still haven’t learned that the second greatest commandment when practiced is less demand and more gift. We look around to find a neighbor to love when sometimes that neighbor is right next door.
Career and yard work fill up almost all space and the little time remaining is spent trying to recover for the next project. If the hamster wheel slows down enough to see the world waiting as life rips by going nowhere, I may realize a neighbor needs love and wish there were more time. But friendship and love are only for those who get off the treadmill and throw their arms around another.
An 86-year-old man and a four-year-old boy have limited adventures. But for three years, adventures they had. With all their differences one commonality was a contentment found in needling the other. I fussed at Jacob for squirting an elderly man with a water hose until I found out that not only had Jack not shown anger, he had participated. What started with worrying about this precocious, ferocious boy harassing the neighbors ended with all seven members of the two families listening as Shirley recited “The night before Christmas” late last December. Friendship all around, love for neighbor all around, peace on earth, goodwill toward and between man. All because a little boy found a couple he would care about, and an old man decided to love young fire.
Friendship didn’t cure pandemics, end racism, or pay off the national debt. But an old hand and a preschool hand reached across a vague property line and made two families into one. Three boys, a mom and dad, and a man and his wife.
We are convinced that Jack swung by to say goodbye last week on his way to heaven. He looked in on his three young friends to offer his regret on not being able to discuss the completed treehouse together or catch any more episodes of SpongeBob. He is done for now answering Levi’s questions, teasing Nolan, and picking with Jacob.
He looked in the master bedroom to tell Jacobs parents for the last time how much he valued their sons and what it meant to him when they visited, especially Jacob. Then he took the outstretched hand of a patiently waiting Jesus and was gone. But across the ditch and up the bank we hold hands and wait for a day when differences and death don’t divide and love is all that remains.
Good fences don’t make good neighbors, love does.