Yesterday I received a phone call from a kind lady I didn’t know. But she knew everything about me. She had read the hundreds of letters that I had written to my long-time pen pal who lived in Oxford, Mississippi.
My pen pal was a retired professor named Ward. We met in 1993 when I was still in high school. I had placed a small personal ad in a Memphis newspaper seeking friends. Yes, this was pre-internet and cell phone days and personal ads in the back of newspapers existed. Ward was one of the few to respond to the ad, and so began our long relationship of letter writing.
I met Ward face to face in Memphis the following year over lunch. He was a very tall elderly man with a awkward toupee. He was very quiet, and as you can imagine because of the age difference, we didn’t have much to share over lunch that day. Before he left, I gave Ward a folder filled with my years of poetry writing for him to read and critique. He kindly returned it to me months later in the mail with some nice sentiments.
In 1995, I moved to Memphis to attend college. Ward and I continued to communicate through letters and one Sunday in either 1996 or 1997, on a whim with nothing to do, I drove to Oxford to surprise him. Ward lived in a large beautiful southern home nestled in the side of a hill behind an iron gate. He called his home Tuesday’s Hill because he’d found it on a Tuesday many year’s ago. The property was filled with luscious flower beds and plants, and there was large statuary adorning the garden everywhere you turned. Many of Ward’s letters had expressed his joy of working in the yard and planting flowers, but it was quite a joy to see all of his hard work in person that day.
Unbeknownst to me, Ward lived in the quaint little guest house behind his beautiful home. His ailing bedridden sister lived inside the house. I didn’t even know until then that Ward had a sister! I came to accept over time that Ward was indeed a very private man. I felt like I got to know him well through his letters, but in face I knew very little. Unfortunately, that day when I visited him at his home would be the last time I ever saw Ward face to face again.
We continued to write to one another, even after I moved to St. Louis in 2001. Occasionally, he asked me to fly to Memphis to visit him one more time. He even offered to pay for it, but I never took him up on the offer. I wish now I had. I called him for a few years each December to wish him Merry Christmas and to catch up with him via telephone. Ward occasionally mailed books to me, often with no written letter included at all. Just a book in a padded envelope to let me know he was thinking of me. When I had first met him, he suffered from a gimp hand then and his writing was sometimes hard to read so I imagined that’s maybe why he chose not to write.
In 2014, I started writing to Ward about every two weeks, much more frequently than I ever had before. During this period of time, Ward never wrote back once. I had a feeling he might have been upset with me for not visiting him again, or worse, maybe he wasn’t able to write back. I feared he might have passed on already, so I wrote to him one last time late that year and told him it would be my last letter. I never heard from him, and then the phone rang yesterday.
The lady who called me went to church with Ward and she and her husband had become good friends with him and visited his home regularly. She had found all of my letters and reached out to me to let me know that Ward passed away last Friday. There was a caregiver and hospice nurse by his side. His caregiver had talked him into moving back into the house from the guest house a while back (Ward had told me in a letter that his sister died many years ago). She repeated what I had known all along, that Ward was a very quiet and private man but because of our letters all those years, she wanted to find me and let me know that he was gone.
Ward told me years ago that he was leaving his house and all of his belongings and property to his church. He attended every Sunday and his friend told me that he usually sat in the very back by the door and when service was over he’d leave without talking to anyone. I can’t imagine someone having to go through his estate and having to decide what to do with it! At one time Ward told me he donated thousands of old books to a library in another state! They had even sent a truck to pick them up.
Ward also told me that he wanted his ashes, along with his sister’s, dumped in the Grand Canyon. His friend told me he changed his mind and wanted to be buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. I know it well from when I lived there so hopefully I can visit him there and pay my respects one day.
Learning of his passing brought me great peace. I finally had some closure and knew what had happened to my pen pal. But it also has brought regret to me today. I feel like I should have visited him. I should have continued to write. Death always reminds us of the things we should have done, and reminds us that now it’s too late. It leaves us behind, alone to go on living. I just hope that Ward is at peace too and that he isn’t lonely anymore.