“I’m dying.” He said out of the side of his mouth as I stood in the dispensary line at the pharmacy. I was looking for some relief from a nagging bladder infection. I was not prepared for this conversation with my neighbour. A moment passed between us and yet I still couldn’t come up with a response, so I reached out and hugged him, whispering, “I’m so sorry,” into his wrinkled neck. It was the first time I’d ever embraced him. No, that’s not true. One day last Spring, he’d knocked on my door to complain about a dying tree across the road. I slipped through the front door and stood on the porch in my bare feet to discuss the options for the tree. But the conversation went from Town business to neighbourly banter, and then waded into therapy territory. We stood out there for an hour that day. He told me he’d lost a child. That his brother had dementia, as does his wife. He explained his whole life story - where he had come from and how he ended up on Bishop Street, in our little corner of the world. My toes turned purple and stuck to the concrete step.
I hugged him that day too.
The background noise of phones ringing, complaints of arms hurting from flu shots in the next lineup, and other, happier chit chat all melded into one throbbing racket. I searched his eyes and wished there was a course to take on what to say in these situations. Don’t give false hope, my mind was screaming. Don’t be insensitive.
“Do you trust your doctor?” Is all I could think to say.
He nodded. “They’ve given me a couple of weeks.”
His shoulders sagged, and both of our minds went to his wife.
“I just need to make sure she has a plan.” He said, replying to a question I didn’t ask out loud.
“Let us know if you need anything at all. I can drive her to appointments, pick up groceries. Anything you need.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this news.” He said, his voice coming out garbled and watery. He picked up his prescription for his wife and walked away. My incessant need to pee returned, and I felt guilty that I was hoping for relief from such a trivial issue.
That evening I dropped off some warm buttered chicken and naan bread to their house for dinner. I had been thinking all afternoon about starting a mealtrain, and made a mental note to go around to the other neighbours to see who would like to pitch in.
His wife answered the door.
“Oh, thank you.” She said, taking the bag with both hands as if it were something breakable. I hoped I’d remembered to remove the receipt from the take-out bag.
“Dennis is asleep.” She said, blinking through thick glasses. I gave a wave as if to say that I don’t need or want to come in.
“Enjoy!” I responded, backing away and turning towards home.
An hour later, there was a knock on the door. It was Dennis’ wife. The rain had stopped, leaving a shiny grey layer behind her silhouette.
“Come in,” I ushered her through the front door and tried my best to keep my dogs from jumping on her. She inched her way into our home.
“I grew up with German shepherds.” She replied, which I already knew. I had heard her say that many times over the years. In fact, every time she saw me walking mine. In twelve years of living here, it makes for a lot of times we had that conversation.
I motioned for her to sit in the dining room.
“I wanted to come and say thank you for dinner.”
I peered out the window, half expecting Dennis to be standing there waiting for her, like a parent watching from the road for their trick-or-treater to return. But there was nobody. The evening light was fading, and I wondered if he knew she had left the house. I wasn’t sure how bad her dementia was, though tonight she seemed very lucid. She stayed for an hour, which reminded me of the day her husband and I chatted about the dying tree. She told me her life story. All the places she’d lived and worked. I listened, and when she repeated things, I didn’t correct her. It was dark when she decided to go. I wrote my cell phone number along with my husbands on an old envelope and gave it to her. “Call me if you need anything at all.” She clutched the paper and together we walked back to her house. I imagined the next month unfolding before us, how I could be of help to these kind people. I imagined dropping off meals and picking up groceries. I would even take him to appointments in the city if that’s what he needed. That’s what neighbours do.
But I wouldn’t get to do any of those things.
The next day my daughter texted me. “Mom, there’s an ambulance at Dennis’ house.” The next day after that, I noticed an ambulance there as well. I drove by to see a large note plastered on their front door. I felt caught between wanting to help, but also respecting their space. After all, I reminded myself, we are only neighbours. Would I want them to show up at the hospital if I were gravely ill? No, that space is for family. I decided instead to flag down another neighbour while out walking my dogs and see if they had any details.
“He’s been taken to hospice.” The elderly couple that live across the road said through the window of their red SUV. My brain couldn’t compute how quickly things had declined. It had only been two days since I saw him at the pharmacy. Two days ago, he was driving, standing, and shopping, and telling me his sad news.
“And his wife?”
“She’s staying there with him. Her son will be at the house looking after things.”
I spent the rest of the day in a fog. What an evil entity cancer is, consuming someone’s body with such voraciousness.
A few days later, my daughter and I were driving to an office supply store to get a new desk chair when my husband called us to tell us that Dennis had died. We turned into the store’s parking lot in shock. The clouds above the store folded in on themselves in layers, like crumpled paper.
“Did people die like this when you were my age?” My daughter asked.
Speechless, I watched as the windshield wipers scraped rapidly, keeping rhythm with my pounding heart.
The next day I heard a faint knock on the door. I opened it to see my elderly neighbour from across the road, cane in hand, eyes wet with grief. I stood on the front porch with her and hugged her tight.
“So, you know about Dennis?” She asked, in her eastern European accent.
I nodded. She went on to talk about how they’d been visiting him in hospice, and how quickly he had declined. She worried about his wife. I sensed some fear in her voice as well. I didn’t say much, just let her talk. It was clear she needed to give voice to these thoughts of hers, I was just there to absorb them for her. After a while, my feet started to ache from the cold. I looked down to see my toes turning purple and the memory of the day Dennis stood here with me flashed through my mind. I wondered if there is a day in the future reserved for another moment like this one. Are my aching purple toes the common memory that threads these moments both past and future together? Another neighbour coming to my door to share news, to feel heard, to stay connected to someone familiar in this rapidly changing world. To receive a porch hug and feel for that small moment that everything is going to be alright.
About the Creator
Author, Mother, Wife. Recipient of the Paul Harris Fellowship award and 2017 nominee for the Women of Distinction award through the YWCA. Climate Reality Leader, Zero-Waste promoter, beekeeper and lover of all things natural.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
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The story invoked strong personal emotions
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