My neighbour is ninety years old. Yes, he’s been on this earth a good nine decades.
And far from being unable to do things for himself, Ernest, former Qantas Flight Manager and race horse owner, goes out of his way to do things for everybody else.
Every single day after he’s read his beloved newspaper, he rolls it up neatly and leaves it on my doorstep. Just in case I might like to read it.
When I went overseas recently he took my mailbox key and collected my mail. “The key was a bit stiff to turn, so I oiled the lock for you,” he said on my return as he handed me my mail neatly piled and held with an elastic band.
Just today, he brought me a bottle of milk because he was up at the shops and thought I might need something. He’s ninety remember – but still walks to the shop everyday with his pull-along bag and sun hat.
Whenever I ask him if he’d like anything at the shop, he says, ‘no, no darling – you let me know if you need anything’. He says to me, “I know you’re a single mother and how difficult it is. I have three daughters you see.”
And that made me tear up. You see, Ern is a good fifty years older than me and has time for everyone. He’s not moody or mean. He just gets on with it. Every day.
Whenever I see Ernest, he tells me another story about his life and slowly I am piecing together the fragments week by week.
Like the years he flew all over the world with Qantas – to London and Japan. And how his wife’s name was Rae. “I told her if she ever left me, she’d be X-Ray,” he chuckled.
Another day he told me how he once saved a young girl’s life in the apartment staircase when her frantic mother ran out the door screaming because her daughter was turning blue. “She was choking,” recalled Ern. “I told my wife to take the mother away as she was so distraught and I leant the little girl over the steps, hit her back and got the piece of food out of her throat. You see Melinda, I’m good in a crisis. I’ve had a lot of experiences. So if you ever have a drama – you knock on my door. Even in the middle of the night.”
And as a single mum with two little ones, it’s comforting that someone like that even cares, that they even think of you.
In fact, Ernest has a sign on his door now “Knock loudly, Ern.” Just in case anyone needs him. You see, he’s a little hard of hearing and would hate to let you down.
Then there was the day he made me a cuppa and told me how many, many years ago, he picked up his precious young granddaughter from swimming class and she was really tired, so he carried her to the car. The next week she was diagnosed with Leukemia and admitted to hospital. “We lost her Melinda, just like that.”
That Ern has lived through such tragedy and still has so much to give to everyone else gives me courage to get through anything.
He’s made me realise how lucky I am to be 43 and a mother of two and able bodied.
Whenever I’m feeling tired or down now, I think of Ern – tough, kind old Ern. If he can bloody get through the day in his ninety-year-old worn out body and his bittersweet memories – then so can I.
So now when I cook dinner, I make up a plate for Ern and knock on his door.
And when the kids are here we pop in to say hi and he’s shows them his collection of DVDs and gives them cute little toys from his collections. And when I go away I tell him how many days I’m going and I give him all the perishables from my fridge to eat.
And on Australia Day, we sliced up our leftover roast lamb and the kids took it to Ern with some soft white bread and butter – and he was so appreciative. He said, “I was just sitting here thinking oh my goodness I’ve got to get up and throw some dinner together and I was feeling so tired. And then you brought the lamb. God bless you.”
No, God bless you Ern. Thank you for your resilience and kindness and thoughtfulness and teaching my children and I the true value of life.