I met Hillard in May of 1990, just after I moved to Oklahoma. But, until the day the tornado sirens blew and I was told I should seek shelter at the big house across the street on the corner, I did not know my neighbors very well. These neighbors on the corner had a large, dugout storm cellar that was always open for folks to use in case of a tornado. I thought it was odd that only a couple of people in the whole neighborhood had a storm shelter. Where I came from in Nebraska, just about every home had a basement or a fruit cellar for such emergencies. So I spent a couple of hours that afternoon meeting the neighbors from both sides of the block while the threat of a tornado kept us holed up together until the “all clear” siren blew.
Hillard and his wife, Nancy, were our neighbors for sixteen years before FD and I moved to the outskirts of town. Since they were older and needed help every now and then, I was happy to lend a hand with gardening and some occasional housekeeping chores. Nancy was quite social and was always dashing off to help with some event at her church, or to go shopping with friends, or take in a game of bridge in the afternoons. Hillard, on the other hand, flew by the seat of his pants, never knowing where he might land.
I never could understand Hillard’s ways at all. He got up late most days, and was never in any hurry to get after the long list of tasks Nancy had laid out for him to do. Instead, he always kicked back and leisurely enjoyed a few cups of coffee before he set off to take on a task. And even then, it would take all afternoon to complete something as simple as mowing his lawn. After making three or four swaths with the push mower, he would kill the engine and take a break in the shade of the front porch, drinking more coffee while reading a few pages in a book. After a short break, he would go back out again, mow a few more swaths and then head back to the coffee and book. It completely exasperated me to watch Hillard mow his lawn! All I could think of was how long it took him to perform this simple task! And who drank coffee in the heat anyway? Sometimes I snickered when I heard Nancy get after Hillard for not completing some chore she had asked him to do. Most times, Hillard would fire back that it would get done when he was ready and not a minute sooner! These two were complete opposite personalities. Nancy took trips with friends, while Hillard stayed home. Nancy moved fast, Hillard moved at a snail’s pace. I understood Nancy completely, because I was much like her. But Hillard was terribly baffling to me.
After FD and I moved across town to the property we live on now, I became too busy to visit Nancy and Hillard very often. And when Nancy passed away suddenly a few years ago, I realized I would have to make more of an effort to look in on Hillard. His two sons live out of state, so I knew it would be difficult for them to visit regularly. But Hillard never complained about being alone. He was thankful to have Tonya, the housekeeper, help with cleaning every couple of weeks. And I knew it meant a lot to him that I drove him to doctor appointments and helped with little issues around the house, like changing heat and air filters, or solving a problem with the phone, or a blinking light on the microwave. But the most dire situation I have had to deal with is when Hilliard’s TV or remote control messes up. After all, it would be a real catastrophe for Hillard to not have old cowboy movies to watch on his western cable channel!
Our friendship has deepened over the last years with Hillard opening up and sharing memories of his youth and life with his siblings and his mother and dad. He even spoke of his adoration for an older brother who died young. He told of joining the Air Force at 19 or 20 years of age, which allowed him to travel throughout most of Europe. He spoke about the Korean war – which I remembered very little of from my history classes at school. Whenever Hillard spoke of his days in the Air Force, his eyes lit up. Mostly, he remembered the friends he made and the adventures they shared while touring Europe. These were my favorite stories – oh how we would laugh at some of the predicaments those young men got into! Hillard had all sorts of interests in life – but he never spent too much time on any one job or profession. He went to school, he went to work, and he traveled here and there. As the stories of his life unfolded, I marveled at his courage to just do as he pleased. Hillard was a vagabond – a wanderer of the world. He did not take life too seriously. He delighted in the good times, and he accepted difficulty when it came down the pike. Now, I was beginning to understand the man who took time to enjoy a book and sip coffee during the many breaks he had while mowing his yard. And do not ask me how it works, but drinking coffee in the heat actually does have a cooling effect!
After all of this time being neighbors and friends, I have learned that I needed Hillard more than he probably needed me. It was during the earlier years of our friendship when I suffered a spiritual breakdown that, thankfully, eventually grew into a time of awakening. It was confusing time of anger and hurt, and much of the time I was in tears and depressed. I cannot say how many times Hillard listened to my ranting, and my hurt. He did not always have an answer, and sometimes he did not know what to say at all. He simply listened and offered compassion. He talked about his own life experiences. Sometimes he had just the right humorous thing to say that would cause me to laugh until I cried. Sometimes he talked about his own difficulties, and I would catch his eyes filling with moisture as well. Here was a friend that had lived life, and some of it very difficult with pain like my own. But Hillard was resilient, always accepting the hand he was dealt. And his gentle encouragement always left me feeling loved and cared about.
Yesterday I took Hillard for an appointment with Dr. Johnson to have some skin cancers removed. When she asked him if he was a veteran, his eyes lit up and he chattered away, sharing war stories while she removed the lesions. I had heard some of these same stories a dozen times or more, but it delighted me that he got so much enjoyment out of telling those tales of his young days. On our way home from the doctor, as Hillard sat in the passenger seat all bandaged up, I asked him if he was hurting much. “Naw, I am just fine. Wasn’t that nice of Dr. Johnson and that nurse to thank me for my service to our country? I didn’t do much, you know. I had more fun traveling with those boys in the Air Force than anything”. And then I listened quietly as he chattered away with more memories.
I had a lunch date with Hillard today, in celebration of Veteran’s Day. While it’s a wonderful thing to thank our veterans and show them respect on this particular day, for me it is more about extending friendship and compassion on a continual basis. Many of our veterans have a host of problems and difficulties we never see. Many of their families also suffered in their absence – and still do. Simply showing kindness and compassion goes a long way. I believe it is something we should give these great heroes every time we have an opportunity.
© 2015 Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…