We saw him ambling along so many times, always with his three-prong walking cane and barely perceptible limp on one leg, perpetually wearing a slight grin, white peaked hat, grey, baggy pants, zippered-up jacket, and slightly rotund in overall appearance. For many years, his wife, equally affable was his walking companion as was his small dog – a terrier tethered to a retractable leash, if memory serves – best companions on his neighbourhood excursions. She died of cancer some years ago but his dog, consistently yipping to make his presence known while he uttered ‘now, now…’ with his grin undeterred, still lived on a few more years. Annoying, to us, frequently he’d stop on the sidewalk in front of our house, his dog barking, enticing our dog to do the same while Murray stood, apparently amused, seemingly for minutes in mock-effort to quell the reciprocal, shrill woofs that built quickly to crescendo across our chain-link fence and hovered there too long.
Murray was just Murray. Round-faced, he would greet us, anyone not by name but he in the middle of some story…how the dandelions were invading his lawn or with a vignette he had heard about goings-on in our ‘hood. He seemed obsessed with his conviction that hackers infiltrated his computer via the internet and often that intruders had broken into his house while he slept or was out somewhere. We dismissed these as delusions, hearing them too often. Murray believed them; we could not. He was friendly, overly so as it seemed to us and like Coleridge’s ancient Mariner, Murray would do his best to stop us, hold us in conversation with his “glittering eye” and yet his words always seemed inane and perfunctory, hollow in their allure. I wish now I had listened more and just been with him for the few minutes he wanted. His only intention was to be of goodwill, to share something on his mind and then saunter on his way around a few more blocks.
It felt like Murray lacked social skills, did not pick up on social cues, could not discern boundaries in his efforts to engage us. We wanted to be polite, to respect his well intended, ever exuding cordiality. And it was hard as though there were no place to meet him equitably in conversation. Murray was harmless, cherubic and I did not listen to him as much as I could have. His dog “up and died,” as sorrow-inducing, we suspect, as Mr Bojangles’ dog who up and died after 20 years. So inextricably connected was Murray to his canine, this man’s best friend, that we asked if he would get another one. It was the only time we heard that Murray had some illness, in his stomach, I think, and still smiling in his response he told us he didn’t think it would be fair to get another dog, that he might not be able to give it the attention and walking-time another dog deserved. We respected his perspective about owning another dog; however, there was a quasi-hypochondria about Murray that left us skeptical about any illness.
Often, we would see Murray driving somewhere in his small, red Honda civic. He would wave, we’d return the gesture, so much easier and convenient than happening upon him in person. Oddly to me, he would shovel light snow on his driveway, one hand on the shovel, the other clutching his cane. He used the same technique with his lawnmower, not an easy feat in my observation until he purchased a rider-mower facilitating his task considerably. Murray lived a mere 8 houses down the street perpendicular to our house, right across the street from Farley’s house, our beloved dog Temba’s best friend:
Murray’s home, # 11
If Murray had hobbies, I don’t know what they were; nor do I know what he did in his home living alone in such a large residence and long since retired. His front door and all north, street-facing window-blinds were always closed, his shutters, perhaps, against trespassers real or imagined.
During the early months of the pandemic, I remember seeing Murray driving in his car…we’d wave at each other. And then we noticed we had not seen him for some time and we wondered how he was doing, if the social isolation were affecting him even more than his solitary existence. This Spring, a ‘For Sale’ sign appeared on Murray’s front lawn and we wondered where he might be going and also felt relieved in our assumption that it might be difficult for him living at his house with all its memories. Curiously, owing in part to the escalating costs of real estate during the pandemic, we looked up the listing. It seemed so sparsely furnished, no pictures on any of the walls, light paint tones, well kempt. And I remember seeing a room with two, dark blue, side-by-side Lazy-Boy style chairs separated by a small table, a lamp and across from the chairs, a flat-screen television. Was that where Murray and his wife sat to relax and watch their favourite shows? What was it like for him to still have both chairs?
About a week, maybe less, after the real estate listing was posted on his lawn, I was coming home from walking one of our dogs and I passed by the house wondering as I did so if we would see Murray before he moved. As I neared our home, one of our neighbours, Tom was sitting out on his side yard enjoying the warmth of a Spring morning. Murray spent a lot of time talking with Tom, always on Tom’s lawn; they each owned and adored their small dogs. In my conversation with Tom that day, I asked if he noticed that Murray’s house was for sale and I remarked that we had not seen him for quite some time. I’ll never forget the look on Tom’s face. He seemed taken aback, sort of incredulous at hearing my question. For a split second, I thought he might be upset that Murray would be moving. After a lengthy pause, Tom said something to the effect of ‘didn’t you hear…Murray died…sometime in December.’
Even writing that last sentence still brings chills to me. To put it mildly, I was shocked, just stunned that he died, that it was months ago, and that we did not know. Millions of people around the world have died from Covid in the last 14 months; many more have lasting effects from the viral scourge, and the threat of another wave looms daily in our lives. And Murray was dead and I wept. Cancer ravaged his body and chemotherapy had taken its terrible toll – I didn’t even know he was sick; he had never mentioned anything beyond his stomach ailment to us. We learned that Murray chose how and when to die – with medical assistance – and my empathy and sheer admiration for the courage – the coeur-age – that that decision and act must have taken brought an odd kind of reverence, an awe, even a sense of peace for who Murray was in his soul. If Murray had family, we never knew, never saw another car at his house. My guess is he lived in solitude – his # 11, alone.
Murray was unconventional, an eccentric to what I consider normal patterns or conventions of behaviour. And who among us is qualified to know what is normal and what is eccentric. His was not a flamboyance of whimsy or outlandish deportment, more unique in his inimitable style of being. Murray’s orbit was our neighbourhood and I still envision him, always will, on his daily promenades, wishing I had taken more time to listen to him. For some reason, William Butler Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree seems to capture, frame, and distill Murray’s essence….
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I tumble home to Murray in all his eccentric glory and I will celebrate him each time I pass his home, his Innisfree.