Sunday, December 14, 2008

Losing a Local Hero in our Small Fish Bowl of a Neighborhood Really Hurts; Clive Was The Man Who Just About Everybody Liked

By Diana L. Chapman

Not long after we moved into our tiny cottage style home on Leland Avenue, I met my neighbor who lives directly across the street, a short man with an English quip and a love for all things Winston Churchill.

Clive always called himself “a Churchillian” and it immediately bonded us together along with the fact he was born in England – as were all my grandparents. There was a lot to talk about and at the time we were both stronger and able to have many an outdoor conversation.

We both agreed Churchill saved the world.

We both loved to read about English history.

We both just enjoyed talking about this-and-that. He was one of my biggest fans when I had my kid’s column in the More San Pedro. He read it religiously. Eventually, the friendship evolved into inviting Clive over to have dinner with our friends. It didn’t matter that he was 74, a couple of decades older than most the people who come here, or that he drank a lot of Scotch. He just slipped into the group as easily as a fish moved in water – and I can honestly say, not a single visit went by where one of my friends didn’t call or email asking me about this man the next day.

Everyone seemed to enjoy his company. I teased him about his Scotch. He teased me about the fact I wasn’t “exactly sipping the wine.” I attribute the number of calls and emails regarding Clive to his English accent, but also just his way of listening at the right time. He was a good conversationalist and fun to have around.

As a joke, I’d contend to Clive that his popularity stemmed from his British charm which he put on every time he dropped by and took off each time he left. Eventually, my husband and I started calling him a “local hero” because he stood up for the children in the neighborhood, but before I get into that, I want to tell you just a bit of his life.

Yes, Clive moved here from England decades ago, when he was one of those English sailors who had gotten off his military ship and was headed for the “pubs” meaning bars along Harbor Boulevard.

He admitted to me sheepishly that he met his future wife – only because he needed to use a public facility – so he raced into yet another bar when he had actually intended to get back to the ship. But the bar was where he spotted the woman he was to marry. The next thing he knew, he had tied the knot, was living in San Pedro and had two sons, Ian and Doug. When his wife died from cancer, he was devastated and became some what reclusive. But eventually, he pulled out of his shell and befriended many in the neighborhood, including me.

He was like this: A woman walked by his home and started breathing in the smell of his stunning array of golden and white roses. He walked outside and the next thing this woman knew, she was back constantly to talk to him about his beautiful rose bushes several times a month. They too became friends, having many outdoor chats.

I loved talking to Clive. But more than anything, I appreciated him for the moment in time when he turned into our local hero and stuck up for the kids in our neighborhood. Apparently, a couple of neighbors were attempting to ban the kids from playing wiffle ball on our typically slow street. My son, his friends and some other boys had been playing wiffle ball since we moved in five years ago and no one had ever made an issue of it.

In fact, when we arrived two 20-somethings, brothers, were outside playing with the younger kids.

“How long has this game been going on?” I teased when I saw the two older men.
“Oh about 20 years,” one of the brothers replied. “We’ve been playing here since we were kids.”

To appease the neighbors, we moved our kids out of one driveway and asked Clive if it was alright if the kids hit wiffle balls in his yard. Of course, it is, he said. The kids have been playing ball out there for so long he couldn’t imagine it any other way. He enjoyed watching them and teased the boys that if they broke a window, he would pay them $10 – because he knew a window would never break and he’d never have to pay it.

Clive actually seemed to enjoy retrieving their balls and throwing them back into our yard and watching the kids play. It was soon after this, the neighbors showed up at his door and asked him to put a halt to it. The kids were too loud, they complained. They were interfering with their privacy. It was aggravating because car alarms went off when the kids ran near them.

Since he was friends, close friends with those neighbors, it must have been difficult for Clive to flat out refuse. But he did – and pointed out that not only had his two sons played there as kids for years – so had theirs.

So the wiffle balls continued to whiz across the street. Clive continued to throw them back. And he’d visit when we had company. Life went about as usual – until I took a sudden and scary plunge in my health to the point where I had trouble getting out of bed. Fatigue became my worst enemy and our social life pretty much crumpled and ceased. Multiple sclerosis does that to people.

Every ounce of my energy was consumed and now I had to be careful where I chose to spend the little I had. The social life tends to get dropped first. I tried to explain this to Clive, but I’m not sure he understood why he was rarely getting invited over anymore.

Life tends to put us on a collision course and I believe this is what happened to Clive after he fell at home and broke his back in three places just a few months back. I was struggling along, barely getting to reach him in the hospital. He came home, went back in the hospital and came home again. The pattern repeated. His friends and neighbors pitched in to help, one watering his lawn and picking up his newspapers. Others ran errands. Most everyone went to the hospital.

Being in and out of the hospital weeks at a time wears on anyone’s soul and it wore on Clive's. The last time I saw him leaving his home, he was a mere shadow of himself and I knew then he wasn’t coming back.

I felt awful that I wasn’t there for him and worse that he probably couldn’t understand why all those invites had evaporated. Then there came a Sunday when friends of the family dropped by to let us know that Clive no longer wanted to be on a ventilator and it would be turned off that morning. His sons sent them over to ask if we wanted to say goodbye.

Jim and I raced to the hospital and everyone was crying. We held his hand in an awkward silence and I began questioning myself about what I could have done better, all the things I could have done, but didn’t do because of my own situation. I was angry because I knew he looked forward to those times at our house and it might have helped pull him out of that downward spiral. At this point, Clive couldn't speak, but he could hear us.

"Look Dad," Ian told his father, who was now shy of being just a whisper of himself, "your party buddies are here to wish you goodbye."

He couldn't say anything, so I hope that it was enough for him to know that we were there.

It’s such a loss and I feel lonely looking out my window, wishing he was still there, wearing his tan-colored cap, watering his rose bushes or driving his royal blue convertible back into his garage so we could banter more about Churchill and our English roots.

While I feel sad, and will for quite some time, I believe Clive would rather that we celebrate his life than be so forlorn.

When January approaches, and if his sons agree, I will celebrate Clive’s life – with a small handful of neighbors and folks who came to know and respect him – and in his honor we will have a wee bit of Scotch and perhaps, just perhaps, he will know we toasted to his life.