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Sidewalk510.35362649Despite the decade we’ve lived in this neighborhood, we’ve never made close friends here. I have many friends who love their neighbors and live in those close-knit communities that seem like they’re straight out of the movies. But our complex of townhouse condos is small and mostly occupied by childless individuals or couples, or young tenants who come and go every year. I can’t even remember how many groups of people have lived in one house next door to us, although at times I had to call the police or fire department on some of them. Right now that unit is vacant.

Certainly we are on friendly terms with several neighbors. And whether or not you’re close with a neighbor, death is unnerving and sad, sometimes tragic. Within the past six months, three people on our street have died. One was a child, one was elderly, and one middle-aged. One of them committed suicide after struggling with depression for at least half his life. Two of the three died within the past three weeks. I have grieved for the mother, the daughter, the wife who survive. Because I have a son, a mother, and a husband whose deaths I cannot comprehend surviving, although I imagine I would. I can’t bear to think about those things and when I do I feel like my brain is going black.

For many weeks after the child died, even though he didn’t die at home on our street, I felt reluctant to walk by his house when I was out walking my own son at night, trying to get him back to sleep. Somehow I felt like the aura of death or of grief would emerge and engulf us. The other neighbors did die at home, but I cannot pause or be alarmed every time I come and go from home, even steps from where they died. Generally when I come and go I am bringing children, usually carrying a very squirmy one. They are filled with and exuding energetic life, and I don’t think of anything else.

Zoe never knew about the child who died, although she knew who the child was. She overheard in passing the news of the elderly neighbor, because her daughter stopped me while Zoe and I were getting in the car. She saw me go over and hug our neighbor, who never previously pronounced my name correctly, and she asked me what was going on once we were in the car. We haven’t told her yet about the third neighbor, but I know we need to, because she’s watched him come and go every day, even though he rarely spoke to us. His wife always does. She once unexpectedly gave Zoe a nativity set. When she told me what happened, she said she was glad we were out of town so Zoe wasn’t home to see the ambulance and commotion. I’m glad too.

It is hard to know the right thing to do. I give hugs. I write cards. I am not much of a casserole maker, but I can rise to the occasion if necessary. I want to be kind and compassionate, but still neighborly. I don’t know their back story. I only know the cursory details. I’ve learned a lot from the obituaries. I’m not a friend or confidante. What I am is a neighbor. And even if they don’t know it, I grieve for them every day.

marineopium05I should have changed the station when I heard Terry Gross say that her guest on Fresh Air was going to be the New York Times reporter covering Ukraine who was one of the first people on the scene of the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down by some evil and selfish people over there. But somehow I didn’t, and so I listened while she described what it looked like when she was walking through the rubble and how some people’s bodies were completely intact, still buckled into their seats, because the plane had exploded in the air instead of just crashing into the ground. When she said, “especially the children,” I had to change the station. And it was too late, because now that image is in my brain and won’t go away.

Yesterday, immediately after hearing the fragment of that story on NPR, I conducted a phone interview with a medically retired Marine. As part of my contract work as a writer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, it is a privilege for me to interview many former Marines and Sailors and their families about their involvement with the Society, as well as interviewing the staff members and volunteers who work with clients. I have no military background so these conversations are usually fascinating and revelatory to me.

Many of the retired Marines and Sailors I speak with were severely wounded while deployed. At a minimum, they have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Many also have a variety of severe physical issues as well. Many have struggled with addiction since returning to civilian life and trying to deal with the mental and physical anguish they returned to in the States. Typically I ask about their service–when they joined, where they served, what caused the injury that sent them home. Typically they give me the highlights. “I was blown up during my second deployment in Afghanistan.” Or “I was on patrol in Fallujah when we hit an IED.”

Yesterday the Marine I spoke with took me almost minute by minute through the day when he was hit multiple times by Taliban attacks while on a rescue mission. He just kept talking and I kept listening and writing down everything he said. It seems like the least I can do to listen to his story. And my job is to share his story–chiefly the part where he gets connected with a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting combat casualty assistance nurse–so other servicemembers like him, or their spouses or moms or siblings can find out there’s another way to get help. So these guys feel less alone.

I am thankful that this is part of my work and it is an honor to do this very small thing to help. But it is hard to hear. It is hard to hear horrible things on the news. It is hard to hear tragedies that strike people I know or the friends or family members of people I know. It is hard to understand why our military is sent out to do unbelievably dangerous work that changes their lives not usually for the better, and for questionable reasons when you hear the news today and know that militants in Iraq are forcing innocent families to die by starvation and no one is able to stop it. Hearing these things just crushes my heart. But I cannot ignore them, and part of me feels responsible for being a witness to the suffering. Still, it crushes my heart.


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