I set off on Friday morning for my usual walk at 7.30. I have a new Sports Tracker phone app which measures the distance that Fay and I walk. I leave home, pick up Fay along the way and we walk for about 1 hour 45 minutes. I set the phone and off I went, met up with Fay at the bottom of the road and we had our usual good neighbourhood walk (and chat). After saying goodbye to Fay, I checked the timer and we had walked slightly shorter than usual so I took a longer route back home. As I approached home, my "over the road" neighbour was getting out of his car. Usually he drives into the driveway and that is where we usually see each other but today he had parked around the corner at the front door. A brief wave and hello as we enter or exit our properties is as far as our good neighbourliness extends. I don't know his name and we have never said anything more that "Hello", "Nice and hot (very wet/cold/windy) today". His daughter and her son had lived there previously but his daughter was now overseas. I knew this from another neighbour who had told me that they were her parents who were looking after the house.
I walked past his car as he was getting out and said "Hi there, how are you today?", expecting nothing more than a "Fine thank you, beautiful day" reply. Well this dear man, got out of his car and his legs buckled against the side of the car. He started crying and told me that it was a really bad day and that he was just so very sad. The only thing that I could think of to do was to give him a hug and ask him what was wrong. My immediate thought was that his wife was ill. Between sobs he told me that this grandson had been killed. Crossing Kloof Street, he was hit by a car on Tuesday night, he had died on Thursday. His daughter and the mother of the child was arriving from California at lunchtime. I listened to the details for about 10 minutes on the pavement and then he asked me my name, introduced himself as Stephen and asked me please to come inside. He had pictures to show me and the hymn sheet that they were preparing for the memorial. I went inside and listened while he cried, questioned God and told me stories about this vibrant 23 year old young man. I could not help crying a bit too. He took three phone calls while I was there and apologised afterwards. He handled these calls so well, even although there were tears streaming down his face. He was dreading his trip to the airport and did not know how he was going to handle seeing his daughter, he could not speak to his wife as they were too raw and sore and she just lay on her bed and sobbed.
I stood and listened and soon it was time for him to leave to go and fetch his wife. This usually dapper and sprightly man was so much smaller and shorter and crumpled with sadness.
I said goodbye, gave him another hug, wished him strength for his trip to the airport and headed to my front door. As I got to the door I remembered my phone and the Sports Tracker app that was still running. 9.75km in 2hrs 25mins - not the best time recorded on my phone for 9 kms. It was about 40 minutes spent sharing something so heartfelt with a stranger. 40 special minutes which made me realise that we know so little about the people who live so close to us, behind the walls we go about our lives not knowing what sadness is within or what wonderful people live behind those walls. I also remembered the feeling, like I have had before, that when someone close to you dies you expect the world to stop, even for a short while to acknowledge your loss, but it does not. Things carry on, the painters at the house next door carry on painting, people take their dogs for a walk, the clock keeps ticking.
I felt honoured that it was me with whom he chose to share his grief. Today as I see so many cars arriving with streams of people going in and out of their house, I hope that he is coping, that he is OK and that he too is getting lots of hugs.
I also know that our "Hello. Nice day today" words with a wave, through our driveway gates will never be quite the same again.