On Ash Wednesday, I shared a short meditation on my relationship with death and promised to share, over the Lenten season, a few touch-points in that history. The first installment is here. Below is the second.
Full disclosure: it is an installment I didn’t plan on writing:
I used to have an office space in the loft of our old place. When we moved here, I set my office up in the corner of my garage and, on nicer days, I leave the garage door up while I’m working. There’s always been something about being focused on what I’m doing while still being accessible or exposed to the world around me.
It means I’m not isolated; I’m connected.
It gives my work a sense of meaning, even as I’m doing it.
I also work with music on. And when I have the door open, I don’t want my music spilling out into the neighborhood, so I’ll put it in my ears. Normally, I’m listening to something in the “ambient” genre, like Ólafur Arnalds.
It was a Wednesday.
I had the door open and headphones on. But between the long notes, I heard what initially sounded like a creak… like the sound of a door opening near me. I pulled my headphones off and looked toward the door leading into the kitchen.
I walked inside and confirmed what I’d already known, which was that I was here alone. Then, walking back into the corner…
At the end of the driveway next to mine, Carmen was lying on the pavement. her blue trash-can on its side in the street.
When my family and I moved into this neighborhood about a year ago, I sincerely struggled to let go of the old neighborhood. I knew those people and they knew me. The word “neighbor” came to life during my 17 years there and gained a deep sense of “place.” Coming here didn’t feel like a “move” initially. It just felt like loss. And loss, in my adult years, has often been followed by period of protective safe-keeping in which I retreat for a while, internally. All of that to say,… upon arrival in the new place, I wasn’t motivated almost to meet new people or become…
Carmen lived next door. I initially met her on one of her walks which she’d very slowly take around our block and talk to my kids when they ran or toddled or rolled by. Those walks were part of her recovery and preparation process between chemotherapy treatments. My wife would take my son to gather lemons or flowers from our yard and bring them to her. She’d often struggle to remember our names. “Brain cancer…” she’d told me once, assuring me that it wasn’t that she didn’t care… she was just sick. The cancer was taking away her ability to remember new names.
She had days she was clear and strong.
She had other days when she was weaker and seemed more frail.
Like that day…
“… please help.” Those words were clear now. But as I got closer I could hear that there was another word there, at the beginning of her sentence. She wasn’t just crying out for anyone’s help….
She knew I kept the door open.
She figured I’d be there.
She hoped I could hear her.
“Neighbor? Please help.”
Carmen passed away yesterday.
Her sister texted us to let us know.
We’ve been here for barely a year.
But on the morning her sister died, she texted us to let us know.
Because we shared in Carmen’s life for a while.
Even a short while.
Better said: we got to.
We got to share in her life for a short while.
And that’s a gift.
Because life ends.
All of it.
It goes away.
I don’t want to take a moment for granted.
Because that moment I miss…
I don’t get that moment back.
Nor do I want to take for granted the gift of people.
I don’t get them back, either.