I recall today lines from a James Kavanaugh poem and am compelled to write upon the passing of a truly gentle man. The poet empathizes with the man who eschews the corporate world rather to dream of “snow and children and Halloween.”
John Miazga was my neighbor for a brief period in the early ’80s. He moved in next door with little fanfare, an old Chevy truck, his wife, Lottie, and a garage full of tools. Our initial meeting occurred that first day when our oldest daughter, Jennifer, an aspiring softballer, let one fly directly through the window of his truck. Welcome to the neighborhood.
John spoke halting but proud English and as we attempted to beg his forgiveness and offer repayment he smiled and said: “Oh, no, these things happen.” I believe he repaired the window himself. John could do anything.
He could listen to the sound of an engine and intuit a problem. He once repaired the water heater, dryer and furnace in our home, all within the space of a month, all with his same easy demeanor, humble smile and “that’s all right, these things happen.”
He seemed to delight in keeping our ’71 Buick road worthy. On any given snowy Buffalo day, his neighbors on Zimmerman Boulevard could count on him to clear the walks. Summers would find him tending his garden and invariably sharing his harvest with all. He reveled in watching the children grow and smiled when they returned with a new friend, a puppy or a child of their own. John embodied the spirit and meaning of “neighbor.”
Perhaps it was that he had no family here. We were aware of a relative or two in Poland but rarely did anyone come to visit, seldom did he entertain. But always he was available for the neighbors, always he was first to lend a hand and invariably it was he who would rectify the problem. He seemed to adopt the neighbors as his family. He once told me that he had been in charge of maintenance at a local cemetery, a fact that might have explained his tool collection and his facility with anything mechanical. It did not explain a man who would “dream instead of Easter eggs and fragrant grass and search for beauty in the sky.”
In the mid ’80s, my wife and I separated. It was a sad time to be sure. I wrote John a letter explaining as best I could the feelings I had for him and the nature of my leaving. Shortly thereafter I received a phone call. It was John, and in his voice so sensitive I heard the words that I’d heard before: “that’s all right, Jimmy, these things happen.” And, as if in an afterthought, the reassurance that he would look after the girls. Truly he did look after the girls, never missing the opportunity to congratulate them on an achievement, to relish moments of celebration and, of course, to cater to any need they might have.
Perhaps it was a cruel twist of fate that at 88, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’d prefer to think that in the two months from diagnosis to death that John was at peace with his life. The neighbors offered their help, but cancer defies storehouses of tools and mechanical insight; it doesn’t differentiate.
At his relative’s request there was no notice of his death, no marking of the kindnesses of this wonderful, gentle man. But in the memories of his neighbors will ever reside the humble man ever willing to help – the good neighbor and valued friend. John, a man too gentle to live among wolves.
Jim Duggan is a former Buffalo teacher and proud father to three daughters grateful for having had John Miazga in their lives.