This essay was written almost a year ago (April 10, 2016), before the blog started. It is almost exactly one year later and new neighbors have, in fact, moved in across the hall. In re-reading this, and after writing about my high school classmate’s passing yesterday, I thought it an appropriate posting --- a companion piece, if you will, to Thursday’s BLAST.
Requiem for a Neighbor
(How do we deal with loss?)
A knock on our door at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday is an unusual circumstance. We had heard some door pounding the night before on our neighbor’s door across the hall --- but it wasn’t enough to elicit significant barking from our dog. The pounding happened again this morning and then the knock came at our door. Answering, I was met by a young police officer and behind him were the parents (they self-identified) of our young schoolteacher neighbor. They wanted to know if we had seen Kelly yesterday or heard anything from her. We had noticed her car was gone all day, as it always was when she was teaching (we are retired teachers) and was home around 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Beyond that we knew nothing. The officer thanked us and we learned that her parents had gotten a text from her the previous evening that said she wasn’t feeling well.
We shut our door, as you do in the suburbs, and then listened and observed, through our peephole and front window, as police were joined by firefighters to break open the front door. My wife thought she heard a policeman’s radio crackle “dead body” to someone and then an ambulance arrived. EMT’s made a short visit and our neighbor’s family congregated on the sidewalk in front of our house. A priest soon joined them. I waited until the family dispersed and the CMT (which I took to mean Coroner’s Medical Technicians) removed the body (I did not see that --- only viewed their van, here and then gone) before taking the dog out for her morning walk. The young policeman and the priest, in a “The Sermonator” baseball cap, were the only ones left out front. By the time I returned with the dog, the priest was leaving and I asked the policeman what had happened. He assured me there was no foul play and that Kelly had nothing serious in her medical records. I asked if suicide was a possibility and he ruled that out --- no evidence to believe that. A heart attack? An aneurism? We would have to wait to find out.
The rest of the day was odd for us, with Kelly’s Subaru parked (as it always was when she was home) right in front of our unit. It was hard to look at it and not remember the hundreds of times in the past three years I had seen her getting in and out of that car, the countless times we exchanged small talk about weather and teaching and the wonder of vacations. And, just like that, it would never happen again.
I remember reading about our ancient ancestors, cave people of some sort, and what it must have been like the first time they experienced an adult’s death in their tribe. Finding a lifeless body where, only hours before, it had been a living, breathing person. What kind of confusion and mind numbing loss did they feel? Death intrudes in our daily lives in the news --- but it is a detached and distant event. When it is your neighbor across the hall --- a vibrant 36-year-old human being --- and there doesn’t seem to be a reason, it is more than baffling. It reminds us in the most dramatic way of how tentative our grasp on life is, how fleeting it can be. I am almost twice Kelly’s age. Why her and not me? What kinds of cards are dealt that way? And what are we, who are left, to make of it? I am as dumbfounded as that cave dweller and there is a sense of loss that is difficult to describe. We were not “friends,” really --- we were neighbors (I had never ever been in her condo unit, but guessed it was a mirror image of ours). We had fleeting, friendly, pleasant conversations and did neighborly favors for one another (“Can you take our newspapers in while we’re on vacation?” “I signed for your package from UPS”). Yet there is now some hole in the life of our community, a loss that is quite ineffable.
Writing has always been a source of release and comfort for me. There are times, despite my verbosity, I am at a genuine loss for spoken words. This is one of those times. I was not a friend, so I won’t "grieve," yet I do feel a loss I can’t express. So this is my requiem to a soul that has left us for reasons we will never understand --- and certainly at far too young an age to make any sense. We will watch the grieving parents remove belongings from her home and eventually drive that car away and probably, at some point, sell the unit to a “new” neighbor. Time is strangely elastic in moments like this and telescoping ahead doesn’t really make the present feel any better. The world will move on. We’re sure her students will severely grieve the loss of a beloved teacher; her family will never fill the hollow that must be, at present, a crater. We are on the outside but close enough to feel the loss of one of our own, a good person now gone and irreplaceable. This is one of those instances that really makes me aware of being not very smart at all --- when there is no (rational) sense to be made of such an event.