When my husband John and I moved into our condo nine years ago, one of the first people to learn our names was our seventy-something neighbor, Jack. Our son Brennan was just a toddler, and we hadn’t had time to make a single friend on our street when baby Liddy came along — with a whole host of medical challenges. Jack and his aging chocolate lab, Packie, were a bright spot in those long and difficult days.
Brennan loved dogs and would be first to spot Jack and Packie making their slow, shuffling way down our street or to hear Jack’s unmistakable voice calling out greetings to various neighbors and passersby. Brennan would sit right down on the sidewalk and Packie would lean into him for a hug. And I would get a few precious minutes of adult conversation about Jack’s winters in Florida, his most recent trip to Ireland or his victory in the 5k road races he still relished. “I came in first in my age group,” he’d laugh, having been the only person anywhere near his age who’d competed.
We kept our conversations light, but he must have seen how worn down I was feeling on the day he called out behind him, “You’re a good mother, Karen,” as he headed back to his apartment building, bringing tears to my ears.
As Liddy grew older, she went through a shy stage, taking cover behind me when people addressed her. Unlike other adults, Jack never pushed her to make conversation, but instead slipped her dog treats to win Packie’s affection, knowing that in doing so, he’d eventually win hers, too.
One day John opened the Boston Globe to a photo of Jack’s beaming smile. At age 77, he was about to run his 1000th road race. It did not surprise us to learn Jack was much beloved in the running community. More than a runner himself, he was every athlete’s best cheerleader. His second story porch gave him a view of anyone out for a jog. He started bellowing out hellos at about 5:30 every morning. His voice had a raw rasp to it — but it carried. I remember John shaking with laughter one morning before we were fully awake. “Jack’s back.”
That was a refrain heard around the neighborhood every March or April, when he and Packie returned from a few months in Florida – always in time to cheer on the runners for the Boston Marathon, which he’d competed in himself many times. “Jack’s back,” we would say. “It must be spring.”
My neighbor Tiffany and I took up running ourselves, and Jack was thrilled for us. His cheers bookended our early morning runs. “Go get ’em girls,” he’d shout when we started out, and when we came home he’d point dramatically at his watch and give us a thumbs up, or hold up five fingers and yell, “Did you make it to five?” Once he was already on the street when we were out and he spotted us first: “Hubba hubba,” he called to us, laughing.
When Packie died a few years ago, the whole neighborhood felt it. Brennan and Liddy were old enough to understand that Jack was grieving, despite his cheerful faÃ§ade. When Jack finally decided he was ready to adopt another senior dog, his condo association refused to allow it, even after his doctor wrote to them that a dog’s companionship was important to Jack’s health. Ever tuned in to the world’s fairness, or lack of it, Liddy and Brennan were furious on Jack’s behalf. After that, Jack filled his pockets with dog biscuits that he offered to every dog in the neighborhood.
This past March, just after John mentioned that Jack would be returning soon, I was stunned to wake up to an email one morning from another friend and neighbor, John Corcoran, telling me Jack had died in Florida. He waited until we talked in person to tell me Jack had been hit by a car on the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day as crossed the street for Mass. He showed me a St. Patrick’s Day card he’d received days before in the mail. “Lucky to be here,” Jack had written. “See you soon.”
I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to Jack’s death. They knew he was getting on in years — they’d even asked once if Packie’s death meant Jack might die soon too. Like all kids, they process the happenings of the world in their own unscripted ways. But when I told them the news Brennan’s eyes went wide with tears before he retreated into silence, and Liddy cried and said, “I’m so mad.”
The ripple effects of Jack’s presence, his kindness, reached into their lives in real and meaningful ways. The first few times we passed his building after he died, Liddy shielded her eyes with her hand, a concrete demonstration of the way we feel in the face of loss, the difficulty we have confronting it face-to-face. “It’s not fair,” she said, speaking for all of us.