This piece is a continuation of an earlier card I wrote called Last Days. I thought it would be unjust to not continue where that card left off, so here is the rest of the story that began there.
Elsie died four months after Sean on a breezy October day, when her weak knee gave out as she was walking down the stairs of her six-story walkup. Like Sean, she had resolutely made and kept a personal promise for years. She had decided in her youth that she would take the stairs every day to and from her apartment. She wasn’t much for exercising, but she figured that it would do her some good to do at least this much. It was a decision she made when she first moved in to her apartment, years and years ago, when she was spry thing of 24 years old. She managed to keep her promise to herself every day for 43 years. Even when she broke her leg in a soccer match when she was 30, and again when she was fighting a harsh battle with leukemia at 54. Elsie managed to stay strong and climb those stairs, proving to herself, even in the darkest of times, that nothing is impassable. Her fall did her considerable damage, and she was rushed to the hospital. When the doctors told her that they couldn’t stop the internal bleeding, she called on her closest friends to come sit by her side. They did. Gathered around her bed, the three of them each took turns holding her hands, and reminiscing about old stories, and laughing together. They brought a couple of bottles of wine, and when the nurses told them that they weren’t allowed to drink, they very politely told her where to stuff her rules. Elsie apologized for not being able to keep her promise to Sean, and asked her friends to carry out his wish for him, with her in spirit. “Besides,” she said, “I’ll have Sean to deal with upstairs anyway.” They all agreed to do it, and keep her in their hearts as they did so. She also asked if she could add a fourth thing to the list- that every day, they would each walk at least one flight of stairs, in remembrance of her. With tears in their eyes, they agreed. Elsie died with a smile on her face and love in her heart, her best friends with her until the very end.
Every day after, each of them walked a flight of stairs at least once, and they did it smiling, knowing that Elsie was smiling down at them. They all kept a copy of Sean’s goals with them as well, knowing that he’d be watching to make sure they didn’t forget. Then came one day in April when Clarence had to break his promises to Sean and Elsie. On his way home from church one Sunday morning, Clarence saw a woman’s purse get snatched. The assailant came running down the block in Clarence’s direction, and so he did the only thing he thought he could’ve done. He stepped right into his way, causing them both to trip and fall to the curb. Clarence’s muscles weren’t quite what they used to be, so he couldn’t hold the man for long, but he gave it his best until the mugger stabbed him in his side. Fighting through the pain, Clarence held on to the man as long as he could. Ultimately, his strength failed him, and the man escaped his clutches, and ran right into the police. Clarence’s intervention had bought just enough time for an onlooker to call 911, and by divine grace, there was a squad car in the neighborhood. An ambulance was called, but Clarence didn’t think he would make it in time. He asked the EMT for a slip of paper and a pen, and with a shaky hand, he penned a simple note and two phone numbers. “I’m sorry, guys. Guess I won’t make it to the birthday party. I love you both dearly, never forget that. And just so you don’t, I have one last thing to ask of you both. Please, every day, send me a simple prayer saying, “I love you too, Clarence”. Happy with his note, Clarence lay back in his gurney and told the EMT to contact both of those numbers and tell them what happened. Satisfied, Clarence fell peacefully asleep, drifting off into the slumber he would never rouse from.
Since then, the two friends have kept Elsie and Clarence’s promises, each walking a flight of stairs and whispering their prayer to Clarence, often simultaneously. On many occasions, they did it together. They both swore to each other to see Sean’s final request completed. They said that against all odds, they must prevail for the memory of their friend. Molly didn’t make it. In June, coming up on the anniversary of Sean’s death, she had a heart attack in her sleep, next to her husband. She died instantly and painlessly, and in the morning, when Alexander found that he couldn’t wake her, he called for an ambulance. The medics pronounced her dead on arrival, and Alexander spent the rest of the day crying and clutching Sean’s note. He climbed his flight of stair and said his prayer to Clarence, and he also gave himself another daily ritual. Every day from that day until the day he died, he sat in his favorite chair in his den, the one that sat next to Molly’s, and he talked to her. He would tell her about his day, the weather, the news, and even the scores and rankings for her favorite teams. He started reading her favorite book to her aloud, page by page. Whenever he finished, he would simply start again.
Sometimes it was hard for him to keep trying, and he would burst into tears of sadness and frustration. In the end, on the eigth of May, 2014, it was only Alexander who was present to complete Sean’s list. He tackled everything by himself, though not alone. He felt the love of his wife and friends with him for every task, and he managed to stay happy and smiling all day long. First, he picnicked in Central Park. Second, he sailed a paper airplane out of a high window in the Chrysler building. Third, he wrote a loving letter to a stranger, pulling an address from the Yellow Pages. And that night, after climbing the stairs to his apartment and praying to Clarence, he talked to Molly one last time before bed. He told her all about his wonderful day, and for once, the tears in his eyes were ones of joy, not sadness. He told her that he was proud to have held on for so long, and that he was happy he could do these things for his friends. He finished off by saying “And now I have one thing for all you guys upstairs. When I get up there, I want you to be waiting for me at the gates with a big hug and a bigger bottle of scotch, and we’ll all have a chat and catch up.” That night, Alexander went to bed with a smile on his face and in his heart, which slowed to a crawl and eventually stopped as he slept soundly, its work done, its goals accomplished.