Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A gentle soul

Once in a while we meet a gentle person. Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu.

Gentle is the one who does "not break the crushed reed, or snuff the faltering wick" (Matthew 12:20). Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something. A gentle person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly, and touches with reverence. A gentle person knows that true growth requires nurture, not force. Let's dress ourselves with gentleness. In our tough and often unbending world our gentleness can be a vivid reminder of the presence of God among us.                                  
-  Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, February 7
On Sunday night, I was unhappily surprised by the news that our 90-year-old neighbour was in hospital. The last time I had seen Bob seems like only a few days ago, when he brought me misdelivered mail. It was bitterly cold, and there he was in a cardigan at my frosty front door. If I hadn't been in the middle of cooking supper, I might have thought to invite him in for a few minutes, as I don't see him too often in the winter. I did manage to ask how he was. "I'm doing better," he said, and I asked if he had the cold that's been going around. "Something like that," he said, as he headed back down the steps and hustled home. "Stay warm," was his parting shot.

We never know the last time we'll speak with someone, but when I visited Bob in the hospital on Monday, it became apparent that the exchange at my front door was the last time Bob would speak with me. He passed away last night, and we miss him.

Bob was the gentle person Henri Nouwen speaks about in the passage above. Bob knew how to tread lightly when offering constructive criticism of my gardening and tree pruning techniques. Though he was hard of hearing, he listened carefully to questions about his garden and offered all sorts of advice, asparagus, apples, garlic, flower seeds, rhubarb, and compliments when my own garden prospered. He looked after his wife Mabelle very tenderly for many years, even when her Alzheimers sometimes made her less than tender with him. And I suspect he touched everyone who ever met him with his reverence and respect for them. A gardener all his life, a father, a grandfather and great-grandfather and a good neighbour all around, he was a person who knew that true growth requires nurture, not force, and he nurtured us all with his kindness and his gentle chuckle.

If I'm not mistaken, Bob lived his entire life in this neighbourhood. It was his father's farmland at one point, and Bob and his dad fought City Hall for the right to turn their cow pasture into the small park across the street rather than build a rectangular grid neighbourhood. I contacted the city to see if the park could be named for Bob's family, but the naming department people tell me it's not actually a park -- it's a "road right of way" and as such, can't be named. But anyone who knew and loved Bob knows it's Bob's park. It will always remind us of him.

Thanks for everything, Bob. You were definitely God's presence among us. Rest in peace, and say hello to Mabelle for us.

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