Some­thing to Lean On

A sur­pris­ing gift helped my son cope when he lost his spe­cial friend

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY LISA FIELDS

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.

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