by Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
In fall 2019, we released A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang. In this heartfelt picture book, Kalia and illustrator Seo Kim tell the story of a young Hmong girl who experiences the cycle of the seasons as well as the cycle of life, welcoming twin baby brothers along with watching her across-the-street neighbor Bob grieve the death of his wife, Ruth. The character of Bob was based on Kalia’s real-life neighbor Bob, an unassuming man in his early 90s who certainly never imagined he’d one day be in the pages of a children’s book.
It is with much sadness I share the following remembrance, in which Kao Kalia Yang says a final goodbye to Bob.
Bob passed away in the morning hours on May 10, 2020. It was a lovely Sunday morning, the beginnings of Mother’s Day; he died in the quiet of the gray. His children were with him in the yellow house across our street. Bob, our beloved neighbor and friend, Bob of A Map Into the World. In his obituary, his family wrote of Bob as a “book inspirer”—which indeed he has been to me. He was a keeper of stories, a holder of times past.
I gave Bob a last hug in the new year. On a cold January day, he walked across the street as my husband and I were piling our children into the car. His hat was tucked around his face, his hands hidden beneath thick mittens.
I asked, “How are you doing?” I said, “Happy new year, Bob. Merry Christmas, too.”
I reached for a hug, and he held me close.
He waved to the children and they waved back. He smiled and they laughed in return.
I asked again, “How are you doing?”
He shook his head, and tears fell, and he said, “Not good.”
We moved a few feet away from the children and the car and he said, “My son passed away.”
I said, “Oh, no. What happened?”
He told me how his son had passed away before Christmas and how funeral arrangements were being made. He put his hand to his heart, and he said, “This. This can’t handle any more life.” I told him I loved him and that I was so sorry for his loss.
Bob, who spent nearly as much time outside as he did inside, did not come out of his house when the weather began to warm. I spoke with his son in March and learned that he was not feeling well. In mid-March, everything changed for the world and for Bob and his family. Bob was not getting better. He was diagnosed with cancer in the course of April. In the last days of April, I spied him for a moment–he walked toward his garden with the support of his son, stood over a patch of earth, and observed. By May, Bob had begun hospice care.
How do I write of watching spring come when Bob across our street was going through the last of his wintry days? The magnolia trees around our neighborhood were gloriously clad in white? The crab apple trees with their shy pink and their verdant purples? The lines of lilacs teeming with purple buds about to blossom? The air was sweet and the grass was green. The tulips were letting go of their petals just as the people were planting their summer annuals. In my own garden, eyes toward the yellow house, I planted: pink asters, purple petunias, yellow marigolds, and fanciful pansies. I dug into the earth, saw the pink worms wiggling, stretching, and I thought of Bob and how if we lived in different times, I’d cross that street with my children and we’d visit and say our goodbyes, hold his hand, tell him once again how much we love him and how important his friendship has been to our family and readers of A Map Into the World.
I knew Bob had passed away before his son came and shared the news. The house across the street, its lights on night after night, had grown dark. There had been motorcycles, cars, trucks parked across the street, and now there were none.
I prepared my children as best I knew how sitting on the green lawn, watching the ants march across the cracks of our sidewalk. They wanted to know why good people die and I told them that death is the natural outcome of life for everyone. They wanted to know how they could say goodbye. Just then, a gentle wind blew, and two bluebirds flew our way, perching on a budding coffee tree. Hands covered mouths and eyes grew big. My little boy whispered, “That’s Bob and Ruth. They are coming to say goodbye.” I found myself waving with my children to the pair of birds sitting for a brief moment in the tree.
Goodbye, Bob. Thank you.