Despite 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.