A Paper Life

A Paper LifeI estimate that I knew Earle for over fifty years. When I was a young boy my parents bought a house on a quiet suburban street. It was a small two bedroom brick house with a partially finished basement. I always considered it odd that all the houses on our side of the street were constructed of brick, some of light and some of darker bricks, while the homes on the opposite side of the street were houses with siding exteriors.
After only a few days, and while raking the fall leaves from my family’s new yard, a man who was also clearing the fallen parts of trees from the yard of the adjacent house walked toward me and with a smile said, “This is a job I never look forward to. Would you like some help?” I noticed that there were quite a few leaves still covering the grass in his yard, but I knew that this was his way of introducing himself and welcoming me to the neighborhood. I replied, “sure, and when my yard is cleared off I’ll help you finish clearing yours”.
We spent the better part of an afternoon raking and bagging the fallen dried leaves, and talking. The neighbor introduced himself as Earle. He said he was married, his wife’s name was Anne and he had two sons, one approximately my age named Lee, and older boy named David.
The years passed and I aged into a young man. Earle and Anne also grew older but always lived in the same small brick house in the old neighborhood. Life took its toll on all of us. My mother passed away far too early and I saw Earle and Anne at the funeral service. We talked about my mother, reminisced about the old days, and Earle told me his oldest son was very ill.
About a year later my father called and said Earle’s eldest son, David passed away. I attended the funeral and remember how much he must have been loved as the chapel was crowded with mourners. I talked to Earle and Anne and expressed my regrets over their loss, we talked about days gone by, then said goodbye.
Some years passed and within only a few months separating their deaths my father and Earle’s wife, Anne died. Earle attended my father’s service as I did Anne’s. Again we talked about our memories of the two and how the years and events had changed us so very much. I told Earle I was returning to the old neighborhood and was going to live in my parent’s house. He acted pleased and said it would be nice to have me back, and looked forward to helping me rake the fall leaves.
Earle and I remained good neighbors and close friends and as the years continued to pass he aged into his eighties. I found that as the leaves covered the grass in the passing fall seasons Earle no longer raked the leaves from his yard so I, and without his prompting, raked those bits of old life from both yards.
I will always remember the last time I raked the leaves from Earle’s yard. It was a cool fall day, and the north wind hinted at the soon to arrive cold and snowy winter. As I moved the wooden handled rake across the leaves I heard a strange noise that originated from within the old brick house. I laid the rake on the leaves, walked up the steps and opened the front door. There on the couch sat Earle. A metal box was on the coffee table in front of the sofa and papers were strewn next to Earle, on the table and on the floor.
“Earle, what’s going on, is everything alright”, I asked. “No, everything is not alright” Earle angrily replied. “My whole life, the life of Anne and the life of my son amounts to nothing more than papers and photos kept in this metal box”.
“My wife is dead and here is her birth certificate and there is her certificate of death. David lived, and he was real, but all that would provide evidence to those assertions is contained in this box. Here is a photo of him as an infant, and this piece of paper is his obituary”. As Earle spoke he reached for, and held in the air for me to see, pieces of printed paper. “I miss them both so much and I am so very angry that this is all that remains of them”. I didn’t speak for what seemed a long and uncomfortable moment, and then thoughts of my mother filled my head.
“Earle, we are here for only a moment, and then we are gone. There is no way to explain, or change, that. The papers and photos left behind are only paper evidence of our presence here on this earth, and by no means represent the true value and importance of our existence. That invaluable record is kept in our minds and hearts, and no piece of paper, no photograph and no legal document is required to remind us of the loved ones we knew and cherished. My memory keeps the images of those lost loved ones vividly imprinted in my mind, and I can see them whenever I like while my heart constantly reminds me of the love I had for them, and to this day still have, and the love they had for me. Those things will never become faded and brittle over time, as paper most assuredly will.”
Earle didn’t speak for a moment but then said, “I know you are right and I do have the fondest memories of my wife and son. These official
documents don’t really define their lives or describe the feelings I had for them, you’re right”.
I bent down to my knees and for the next few minutes gathered up the papers from the floor, sofa and table. I placed the documents on Earle’s lap and as he looked at me, and without uttering a word, Earle put both hands on the stack of printed records and placed them into the metal box.
“Are you going to be alright”, I asked as I rose from my knees. “Sure, I’ll be fine, and thanks for talking to me. I guess I sometimes have a hard time making sense of everything that has happened in my life”. As I walked toward the door Earle once again spoke to me.
“Would you do me a favor?” “If I can”, I said. “When I die and my life has become only a memory, would you place the printed documents created to record that death in this box?” “If that’s what you want Earle”.
Earle passed away a few months later and Earle’s son, Lee and I sat on the living room sofa, talked about Earle and placed Earle’s death certificate and printed obituary copy in the metal box.
It seemed to me that Earle had lived a life devoid of the belief in divine intervention and filled with good intentions which were, more often than not, subsequently followed by good deeds. To be sure, he was a good person and had lived a meaningful life. I will never forget him.

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One Response to A Paper Life

  1. Kushal Swain says:

    I am really touched by this article. You couldn’t have written it better.

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