My husband and I live in a small, unincorporated town on the outskirts of a bigger city. Although we are almost 50 years old, we are 30 to 40 years younger than any of our near neighbors. Most of them have grandchildren who visit regularly, and drive them wherever they need to go. Not so for the man I usually just called “Professor.” His wife, Elena, died 12 years ago. I only knew her briefly, but she and the Professor were one of those “Life Goals” kind of couples. I loved spending time with them. They were both so erudite, and witty, and clearly still deeply in love. Elena’s passing hit her husband hard. For the last year, he had been battling cancer. With no bus service in our rural area, and cabs from town an expensive, long wait, I ended up driving him to doctors.
The Professor had been in the U.S. since his 20s, but he still retained a charming foreign accent. My name, he pronounced as “AWN-eh.” Usually, when he phoned me, he would say “Good afternoon, AWN-eh.” Sometimes, he would call in the wee hours, in pain, able only to gasp “AWN-eh!” I would drop the phone and run to his house to help him with his meds or take him to the city’s emergency room. He was adamant about NOT staying away from home. He knew the end was near and he wanted to go in his own bed.
On October first, at almost 4 a.m., my cell phone rang, showing the Professor’s number. When I answered, a strange voice asked, “AWN-eh?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Professor?”
“No!” The voice giggled. “This is Maria. I’m taking him tonight.”
Then I… woke up? I was sitting up in bed, with the phone in my hand. My husband and our dog were sleeping soundly. So, the phone hadn’t really rung. Or had it? I started to call the Professor, but if he was managing to get some sleep, I didn’t want to disturb him. So I got up and dressed quietly, and the dog and I slipped out to the backyard. I could see the Professor’s house from there. No lights were on, and everything was quiet. I wasn’t comfortable, though, so I went ahead and dialed. Twenty-five rings, no answer. Damn. I knew then. I went back in and woke my husband. We walked to the house and knocked. Nothing. We had to phone the sheriffs. They broke in. The Professor had died, seemingly peacefully, in bed.
Because of our unincorporated location, any of the chores which would fall to professionals in an urban area are taken up by neighbors here. So, that evening, with a deputy’s supervision, the families on our block began to sort through the Professor’s papers. We needed the “deed” to his burial plot and any kind of will or link to distant relations. I looked through a small scrapbook of old photos that was on his nightstand. There was no “Cousin Marco from the old country,” or “nephew Bob, NYC, 1997.” It was mostly pictures of Elena and the Professor. And their never-spoken-of young daughter Maria, who had died in Oaxaca, in 1971. Via