My neighbor down the hall, David, passed away a couple weeks ago after a battle with cancer. He was in his 70s, that much I know.
Up until very recently, when illness and radiation treatments got the better of him, he ventured out almost every afternoon for a short stroll outside, taking in the bustle of Lakeshore Avenue and the views of the Oakland hills. He walked slowly, deliberately, and for about the past year, with a cane. When it was cold, he wore a tweed flat cap to cover his thick shock of grey hair. (He had not lost a one.) His dark slacks and shirts, mostly of quality and in dark colors, hung on his thin frame. I never saw him wear denim, but I did catch him checking the mail in his flannel bathrobe a time or two.
Other than that afternoon walk, he kept mostly to himself. He seemed content with this arrangement. “I have my books, my computer, my stamps, I can smoke [um, herbs…], what more do I need! Sometimes I have to push myself to get out and get some fresh air!” As an introvert who has no problem spending hours solo on a bike, traveling solo, or doing just about anything solo (except dining out and going to the movies…those two things I prefer to share), I respected his appreciation of home.
The man that lived across the hall from David said he never saw the man. I saw David a few times a week, at least. We crossed paths so often and with such synchronicity that David joked that we must have known one another in a past life. “I don’t know what it is about you and I,” he would say, “but there must be some reason that we met.”
I don’t know if there is a reason other than to enjoy each other’s company, but I am glad we met. There were times when I felt rushed and didn’t want a hallway conversation. And one time, when he caught me as I was hauling a heavy bag of groceries up three flights of stairs, I snapped. “You look tired,” he said. “Of COURSE I’m tired!!!” But most of the time, I let our conversation run, whether in the hallway or out on the sidewalk, for as long as it needed to run. He never complained about illness and pain. He mostly expressed gratitude that he had good people taking care of him, that he had a nice place to live, that his bills were paid.
The last time I saw him, I didn’t see him. The window in the back of the ambulance was too high and too small for me to see inside. He had taken a fall the night before and his caretaker found him the next morning. The ambulance drove away with my friend as I was coming home from a bike ride. I gave the caretaker my phone number in case David needed a ride home from the hospital. She called a couple days later, but not for that reason.
David’s brother James arrived the day David passed and stayed for a couple weeks to get his affairs in order. I didn’t bump into James nearly as often as I saw David, but we did manage a couple nice conversations in the hallway. During one of those talks, James mentioned that one day, when caring for David during the final phase, he walked out to the back of our building to get some air. The back of our building has what, in better days, was a courtyard and a garden, but now it is an overgrown jungle. So James started pruning and weeding. I’m sure it was therapeutic to forget about illness and whatever family dynamic existed between he and his brother and focus on the weed-choked flowers, mustard and fennel. He said he salvaged enough of the flowers to pick a bunch for his brother and arrange them in a vase in front of the window.
I had often thought about organizing a community garden project for our building to keep the jungle at bay, I told James, but other commitments always took priority. Our little plot of nature has such potential, but neither my neighbors, the building manager, nor myself seem to have time for the upkeep. So the idea sits for another day.
James left this morning. When I came home from my bike ride, I found this gift by my door:
James passed the pruning on to me. Thanks a lot! I don’t even own any houseplants. But in David’s memory, I will tend to the weeds and prune the bushes. I will remember these two brothers when I do what I can to this overgrown mess. I’ll think of the strong bond between them. I’ll think of the synchronicity that brought my neighbor and I together, and remember that we are all connected. And we come together in all sorts of communities: our neighborhood, our clubs, our church, our work, our school and even our gym. In the best scenario, our communities can nurture us as we grow…but sometimes they need a little cultivation, like the lilies in a jungle of weeds.