A friend from my old neighborhood died last week. Allan Duncan MacDougall — known simply as “MacDougall” — died at 69 years, from a massive heart attack and stroke. Ned, Nat and I went to a celebration of his life today. Nat was on his way back to his own house, and we took him with us, but I would have wanted him there anyway, because Nat knew MacDougall.
The party was next door to our very first house, which we’d bought in 1996. It was a 1900’s Colonial Revival almost-Victorian, with leaded glass and pocket doors and heart pine floors. It was my dream house. We could not really afford it, but we managed somehow. That could be because we did all the work ourselves (painting, landscaping, kitchen updates…). This was the house where Nat’s autism really settled into him, where Max started kindergarten, and where Benji was born. This was the house I almost ran away from when autism was just too much to bear. We sold it in 2000 and moved to a bigger house to suit our bigger family and where we still are today.
I had not realized back in 1996 that not only was the little house a gem, but so was the neighborhood. Next door was a couple who were so old they had worked for the JFK campaign. Across the street were Susan and Joe, who became good friends of ours, who even looked after our boys when one or the other had to go to the emergency room. Susan comforted me the day I almost ran away from home, and kept me there with her nurturing kindness.
And on the corner in the crazy orange Victorian were Joellen and MacDougall. Teachers at Newton North High School for decades together, Joellen and MacDougall were a Milton Road institution. Joellen is probably close to my mom’s age, but she was more just a kindred spirit of mine. She still is, even though we don’t see each other more than once a year. Joellen is lean and intense, active, politically and physically, and she sees right into your heart. Joellen always cared about how things were for me, regarding Nat and everything else. She really, truly wanted to know. She’d look into my eyes like a hawk seeing prey and she’d dive into my problems and wrestled with them almost right along with me. MacDougall wasn’t that way, but he was real a presence in the background, always there. He was a Santa Claus lookalike, a history teacher, a 50’s rocker, a Bob Dylan expert, and a truly independent thinker. In another era, he’d probably have been Woody Guthrie, traveling the trains and singing folk songs and stirring up trouble.
I didn’t know MacDougall as well as Joellen, but it didn’t matter. I felt he was both a stranger and a friend, who would talk politics and simply assume you were right there with him. I was. I remember when MacDougall bought a dog — Rufus Diamond — part Pit Bull, part German Shepherd, and how Joellen and he would toss a ball to him daily in their tiny side yard.
I don’t know if it was MacDougall or Joellen who first thought of it, but one of them asked Nat to come over and throw the ball to Rufus Diamond. And 8 year old Nat did it, giggling at the looniness of the dog jumping for a dirty shredded tennis ball. Nat even took it from Rufus — I think — even though it would be completely gooey and slimy with dog saliva.
Later in life Nat became afraid of dogs but his time with Rufus Diamond was always fun for him. It was possibly even more fun for me, Joellen, and MacDougall because we loved seeing Nat feeling happy with another living being, rather than by himself. It just seemed so little boy normal to me, something which, let’s face it, we all want to see in our kids from time to time. Nat’s catch made the world seem a little less scary to me, the autism more manageable.
I became very close to Joellen just before we moved away. It was hard to leave her and Susan and Joe, but I was set on Dream House Number 2. In some ways I think I broke Joellen’s heart when I left, and I have always felt sad about that. But she has a very big heart and knows how to keep it full. I owe a lot of my peace to her, so I knew that I really had to be there for her today, to celebrate the late great MacDougall.
I told Nat we were going and of course he wanted to go because he loves a party. I told him that Joellen was sad now because MacDougall died, and that she wanted to see us to make her happy. “‘kay,” Nat said, as he always does. When we got to the crowded house Joellen saw me right away and came right over, crunching me in a bony hug. She looked at me with wet shiny eyes and I was so glad to be there. Nat was off and walking around, doing a circuit of the downstairs, but mainly he was in the kitchen where plates of brownies, apple crisp, sandwiches and cookies were spread on a pale granite counter. I had a great time, which sounds strange because it was about a man who is dead, but when you think about it, most gatherings people have around death are completely joyous.
It was getting late so I started making the signal to Ned and Nat. I reached out and hugged Joellen, and reminded her of Rufus Diamond and Nat, and told her that Nat had a real connection to them because of that dog. She had not remembered that, and she lit up when I told her. She turned to Nat to say goodbye, and to my surprise, my darling son reached over and pulled her into a hug. Joellen and I almost started crying right then and there. I thought of how Ned and I have put our hearts into raising Nat to be as independent as he can be, capable, and bright. We’ve also helped him become a loving person. But I kind of think he also got some of that from living on Milton Road with Susan, Joe, MacDougall, and Joellen.