A few days ago, in the light of an early-morning moon, I spotted my next-door neighbor, Bill Young, sitting on the front stoop of his row house with his head in his hands. I opened my window to speak but before I could, Bill said, "You know my wife passed."
It turned out that Bill had been looking into the costs of funeral arrangements that day and had become so discouraged that he could not sleep. It could cost up to $1,900 for a simple, traditional burial, he had been told, and $100 extra just to get a preacher to say something nice about his late wife, Olive.
That seemed like adding insult to injury to me. If a person can't pay the going rate for a fashionable disposal, then it's a pauper's plot -- cold and simple.
That was no way for Olive Young to go -- or anyone else for that matter.
During the latter part of her 61 years, she would spend time at her second-floor bay window, the unsung champion of the neighborhood watch group around 13th and Q Streets NW, keeping an eye on children and property and especially me when I jaywalked.
"You could get hit doing that," she'd say.
I'd check for her in the window before crossing the street, and continued making mad dashes when I thought she was not looking. Once, after a particularly close call with a motorist, I discovered that she had been watching me from behind a rosebush in the front yard.
"You'd better be careful," she said as she presented me with a fresh-cut rose.
She had told Bill to keep an eye on me, too. Anyone who moved into an apartment with a fold-out couch, mattress and books but no pots and pans obviously needed watching, she felt.
So he did. Soon after I moved in, he came over and built a ceiling-high, wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room and a 36-inch-high platform for my mattress.
Then he returned with a pan of fresh fish that he had caught and cleaned. When he learned that I did not know how to cook them, he did that, too.
Bill and Olive had been married for 18 years although they had lived together for many more. She was diagnosed as having cancer last June, and at 4 a.m. one morning last week, Bill got a call from the hospital saying she had died.
He had worked around the neighborhood as a handyman for many years, but after his wife's condition was listed as terminal he took off to care for her full time. By the time she died, there just wasn't enough money around for the kind of ceremonies for which life had made her worthy.
Bill has scraped together enough money for a memorial service for Olive, which is scheduled to be held from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday at the McGruder Funeral Home at 2311 Martin Luther King Ave. SE.
But he was still unable to afford someone to make the words official.
This was bugging him to no end. He could find no peace, so he'd get up early in the morning and work his buzz saw, building a back-yard shed for his fishing rods.
"Staying busy helps keep your mind off of things," he'd say, pointing out that he had already cleaned two closets and scrubbed some floors and was planning to rake the leaves.
Seated on the front stoop with his dog Kane during a break in the work schedule, he held up a picture from their wedding day. "We made a nice couple," he said. Then the dog began to moan and Bill patted him on the head. "He knows something is wrong," he said.
While cleaning up around the house, Bill had found a shoebox filled with snapshots of their lives together. They had taken trips to Atlantic City, gone fishing, played cards with friends and even once met D.C. Mayor Marion Barry at the Logan Circle Community Association picnic.
"Can you get someone just to say she was a good woman who stood by her man?" Bill wanted to know.
Can you believe it? A hundred dollars for a preacher to say something nice about a person he didn't even know? Or $1,900 for a funeral with casket?
I'm glad I had a chance to know Olive Young, who was an extraordinarily nice person, and there will be no charge for this.
Of course, it's probably clear by now that I am still very much in her debt.