Something to Lean On
A surprising gift helped my son cope when he lost his special friend
A surprising gift helped my son cope when he lost his special friend.
MY SON AND DAUGHTER had barely heard of their cousins Marcia and Julius before we moved to their hometown two years ago. Because we’d just become neighbors, I thought that my children should get to know them, so I invited the cousins over for a meet-and-greet one afternoon. When the doorbell rang, my kids rushed to the door, thrilled at the prospect of having more relatives. In came Marcia, a chatty, retired schoolteacher in her 70s. Shuffling in slowly behind her, relying heavily on his cane, was her octogenarian husband, Julius—Juli for short. He wore a heavy cardigan
sweater despite the mild weather, a baseball cap crammed down over a shock of white hair and a slight scowl. I hadn’t seen Juli since I’d become a mom, so I’d never wondered before whether or not he was kid-friendly. With one glance, I quickly decided that he probably wasn’t.
After the introductions, my kids ran off and played together in the basement. A few minutes later, without warning, they barreled into the room where Marcia, Juli and I were sitting, curious about the cousins. My son Ben, who was 4 at the time, eyed Juli’s cane, which stood erect on its fourfooted base. Then came the question.
“Why do you have a cane?” Ben wanted to know.
Juli hadn’t expected my son to address him, and he hadn’t heard the question. He looked to me for help. “What? What does he want to know?” Juli demanded of me gruffly.
I was embarrassed to repeat the question, but when I did, Juli seemed flattered that Ben had noticed something about him. He gave a short explanation, then invited Ben to try out the cane. My son looked to me for permission, then eagerly stepped up to the cane, took it in hand and walked it around the room, resting it on the floor every two feet. He returned it to Juli with a smile, then slipped away.
That afternoon, my son popped in and out of the room where we were sitting several times, sizing up Juli. Toward the end of the visit, Ben snuck over to Juli, wordlessly crawled into his lap and gave him a hug. After the initial shock, Juli beamed. In an instant, he was hooked on my son.
From then on, Juli always referred to Ben as his buddy. The mismatched twosome would chat like old friends, usually after Ben took a quick lap around the room with Juli’s cane for good measure. Ben didn’t mind that Juli was older or slower; they were just pals.
Over the course of two years, Ben and Juli saw each other at a handful of family dinners, holiday meals, birthday celebrations and gettogethers. Once or twice, Marcia and Juli came to my house to babysit my children for an hour or two while I went to a parent-teacher meeting, which allowed for unfiltered fun.
No matter that Juli couldn’t walk down the flight of stairs to the basement playroom to watch my son and daughter put on a play. My children were more than happy to don costumes and move their performance upstairs to the family room, where they’d perform for the cousins, then read books together on the couch.
The two would chat like old friends. Ben didn’t mind that Juli was older or slower.
One warm, unremarkable summer evening, I received a somber phone call and learned that Juli had just passed away. Although he’d been frail, the news came as a shock to me. I spent the rest of the night figuring out how to tell my kids about it. They’d never known someone personally who had died, especially not someone whom they considered a friend.
The next day, when I gently shared the sad update, both of my children looked horrified, unsure what they should do or say about the terrible loss. Ben, who was six by that time, cried and cried. I scooped him up, put him in my lap and rocked him back and forth, like I did when he was a baby.
I tried to explain: Juli was 85; he was very old.
“That was so young!” Ben shouted between tears.
He had been sick for a while; that’s why he’d walked with the cane.
“It’s not fair!”
I let him know that it wasn’t fair and that it was okay for him to cry.
Later that day, we decided to visit cousin Marcia. She hugged us all when we arrived, but her longest, tightest hug was for Ben—giving him comfort and taking some for herself. We stayed for a while, talking and listening to stories about their 50 years together. Ben had often stared in amazement at the framed black-andwhite photos of Juli as a young man with dark hair, which decorated the couples’ home. Now Ben was hearing stories about his friend that dated back to that earlier era.
At one point during the afternoon, Marcia pulled me aside and asked if she could give Ben something to remember Juli by. When I heard what it was, I simply couldn’t say no.
When it was time to go, I let the kids know that they should say good-bye. As we were leaving, Marcia told Ben that she had something special to give him that Juli had wanted him to have. Without any fanfare, she presented him with Juli’s worn four-footed cane —the very one that I thought would be a point of contention at the start of their relationship.
Ben looked surprised, then honored. He smiled shyly and thanked Marcia. Then he took the cane in hand, supporting himself with it the way that he’d seen Juli do countless times, and proudly walked outside into the sunshine.