I was 4 years old when Mr. Geary came to live in the upstairs apartment. Our town, a small farming and coal mining town in southern Indiana was building a new power plant and my parents rented the adjoining apartments to some of the construction workers who came from Kentucky to find work.
I don't remember much about Mr. Geary except that he seemed hopelessly old with his wrinkled face and rough features. Before long he and I, and unlikely pair, established a daily routine. When my mother would tell me that it was almost time for him to come home from work I would run out to sit on the front porch and watch for his old red Ford pick-up to come rumbling down the road. At the sight of it I would jump down off the porch and run back the lane to meet him. Every day he brought me a Hershey candy bar and either a pack of gum or Lifesavers. The he would trudge up to his upstairs apartment and I would run to our apartment to get the daily newspaper. Often I would pick a red rose from my mother's rose bush and then stand at the bottom of the stairs and holler, "Mr. Geary, do you want the paper?" He, knowing what was coming, would tell me to bring it on up. He would have already poured 2 glasses of tomato juice and sat them at his kitchen table. We would drink our tomato juice while he looked over the newspaper. I hated tomato juice but I drank it because he liked it.
We then would spend time together playing with my dog or with my dolls. Yes, he played dolls with me. Looking back, I am quite sure that the last thing he felt like doing at the end of a long work day was to play with a 4 year-old. But he did.
I remember the day he left with crystal clear clarity. My mother had tried to prepare me, explaining that he had a family back in Kentucky that he had to go back to. All I knew was that my best friend and surrogate grandpa was leaving. I was angry. When it was time for him to leave I ran to the back yard and sat on my swing set - facing away from the house because I didn't want to see him go. After a while he came out and stood off to the side of the swing set, trying to tell me goodbye. I would not look at him or say a word. I was angry and I wasn't giving him the time of day. After several minutes he came over and bent down and kissed me on the cheek. His face was wet with tears as he barely got out the words "goodbye". Then he climbed into his truck and drove away. I stood there dumbfounded, in disbelief that he had really gone.
I never saw Mr. Geary again. For years I had wondered about him, and assumed he had passed on. Then about 8 years ago I decided to try to at least find out where he was buried so that I might go and finally say "goodbye" to him. After countless phone calls and a lot of detective work, I found his son who told me that he had passed away 2 years prior. All those years he was alive and living just 2 hours away.
I'm sure he died thinking that because I was so young, that I had forgotten him. I'm doubly sure that he had no idea how much he meant to me or how much of an impact he made on my life. I never got to tell him. But 40 years later I am telling a lot of other people about Mr. Geary. He is the reason I Believe that no act of love or kindness is wasted. He is the reason I believe that it is possible to make a difference in the life of someone even if we don't have all the great talents abilities that it seems others do. And I suppose that he is a big part of the reason why I put a big emphasis on "just loving and playing with the kids" when we go on mission trips. He may also be the reason I'm hopelessly addicted to chocolate.
I did find Mr. Geary's grave. It was marked by a cold black granite marker in a small cemetery in Kentucky. So unlike the man I had known. There was a driving rain that day so I didn't linger long, just long enough to lay some red roses on his grave and say "goodbye" to a friend.