Yesterday I learned my next door neighbor’s husband died last December (not of COVID).
Right next door for nearly 10 years. And I had no idea he was even ill.
I was on my way out to run some errands and noticed my neighbor out in her yard, setting up for a family party. I called her away from the preparations to quickly discuss cooperating on taking down some nasty invasive trees and bushes right along the property line. We agreed about it quickly. I explained I didn’t want to interrupt them (she and her husband) with a phone call, so I thought I’d just catch them to talk about it when I could. I used his name: “didn’t want to interrupt ‘you and x’,” and that’s when she looked at the ground and told me he had died 10 months or so ago.
I immediately burst into tears.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I had no idea!!” She shrugged and let me off the hook – “yes, well, with COVID and everything…just trying to keep going.”
“Oh, I’m such a shitty neighbor! I had no idea! I mean I saw you guys walking someone around the neighborhood last fall but I thought it was a relative who had been in a car accident or something! I didn’t recognize him! I’m so, so sorry!”
I said it had been just over 5 years since Mike died, and I knew what she was going through. But everyone’s grief is different. I have only Angelic Daughter to try to explain why this happened to us, to her, to her Dad, and to try to give a way to understand “heaven” or “the next world.” But my neighbor has 4 young adult children, one of whom is two years younger than Angelic Daughter. I can’t imagine taking on the solo role of “being the strong one” for four devastated young people, when you’re utterly pulverized yourself.
None of my immediate neighbors have ever been over to my house, and I haven’t visited theirs. I never made much of an effort to get to know them beyond a superficial greeting, a chat about gardening, or a wave from across the street.
And I’m ashamed of myself for that. Although pandemic isolation made it difficult to connect in person, there’s no excuse not to have called, or sent an encouraging text, or just checked in with a “how ya doing?”
In a recent episode of Ted Lasso, the coach explained why “he was never going to let anybody in his life get by him without understanding that they might be hurting inside.” (Source: NYT episode recap). I said something similar to that to someone who reported to me in my past professional life–but it didn’t sink in the way it would have coming from Ted, because I never communicated to the people on my team that I appreciated them. The only vibe they got from me was that I thought they weren’t good enough, even incompetent. So I was a shitty manager, too. (That’s on my to-be-written list: “Confessions of a Toxic Boss”).
I’ve been trying, and frequently failing, to make something good come out of losing Mike. I aspire to being that person who never lets someone get by without knowing they could be going through a tough time, or that they could be feeling lonely, lost, and hurt.
The condolence letter, offering help and a listening ear, goes in the mail tomorrow. A comfort gift has been ordered for Angelic Daughter’s classmate. Prayers for my neighbor were requested at church this morning. But no amount of amends-making now is going to erase ten years of indifference. I have to live with that. And with the knowledge that another woman, another Mother, went through watching her husband decline, and suffer, and die, behind closed doors, isolated by the pandemic, and alone, being the strong one for her kids.
We’ve always had mourning doves around us. Usually a pair, perched on the phone or cable wires that run above the driveway. They came to the birdbath, and for the first time last spring, I saw what must have been a baby mourning dove, timidly tiptoeing around the garden.
But since then, I’ve usually seen only a single dove, and heard the plaintive “coo-OOO-oo-oo” call go unanswered.
I want to notice signs that someone right in front of me may be hurting. I want to be more like Ted Lasso. I want to be the one that doesn’t “walk on by” in this time of pain, loss, anxiety, and seemingly unrelenting disaster. I won’t assume everyone’s OK. No one was ever completely OK in the before time, and they sure aren’t now.
Resolving for the umpteenth time to do better, I remain,