By Shawna Kenney
We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.
Where I grew up in Southern Maryland, our nearest neighbors were sometimes miles away. Still, I rode my bike through the woods and drove my first car around town confident in the fact that if there were ever an emergency, help wasn’t so far away. Neighbors kept an eye on us kids when my mom went back to work and my dad was away on duty with the Navy. They towed my prom date’s car out of the ditch while he and I stood by, helpless in our 80s couture. They also snitched on my sister and I when we were in high school and threw a big party while my parents were out of town. Since my dad’s death a few years ago, neighbors still plow my mother’s driveway after every snowstorm, unasked. When I later moved to Queens, NY in my twenties, the grey-haired woman next door welcomed me with kugel. In grad school in North Carolina, we shared blueberries with our neighbors’ granddaughter and he would periodically cut back our weeds when he was out chopping his own.
Now I live in Los Angeles, where I’ve left apartments due to bad neighbors—3 a.m. high-heeled stompers, incessant complainers, violent rage-aholics… but even in a city as vast as this, where things get downright Darwinian when it comes to parking spaces or freeway merging, I have mostly lived next to nice people. It’s good to know the mailman and it makes me happy to find familiar faces in a county of 10 million. Deep in my psyche, Sesame Street always looms as the ideal.
There have been times when I’ve acted less-than-neighborly. In one episode of anger over people in our small building not cleaning up after their pets, I gingerly moved the dog poop from our assigned parking space to the spots belonging to tenants with dogs. Not my finest moment, but you can only step in shit so many times before compassion dissipates into the methane.
A young couple moved into our building just a few weeks after us, just over a year ago. We had looked at that unit when we moved in but it felt too dark—not enough windows for someone like me who works primarily from home. Months after they moved in, the couple had a baby. We would say hello in passing, smile at their baby and pet their dogs, but generally keep to ourselves. They let me use their phone once when I accidentally left mine in the back of an Uber.
Then the husband died on his bike of sudden cardiac arrest on the way to work. Another neighbor gently broke the news to me one day at the gate as I returned from a bike ride of my own.
The new widow’s local family quickly appeared. Her husband’s family flew in from New York. She seemed to have a lot of support but I wonder how to do the right thing in these situations. My husband and I both hugged her in the yard, offering condolences and the cliché “if there’s anything we can do…” The next day, I left a sympathy card—something simple bearing a proverb about extending a green branch, allowing the birds to come singing. On the inside we added feeble words along with our phone numbers, email addresses and an offer to dog-sit at any time.
I wedged the little brown envelope in my neighbor’s screen door in the morning. By nightfall it was gone. It’s a tiny thing in this big city, maybe pointless in the endless ocean of grief, but I was heartened to see a big white envelope in its place the next day, most likely from another neighbor.
Still, it felt odd knowing her world was turning upside down while we were upstairs steaming artichokes and binge-watching The Americans.
I wished I could take some of the sadness off her hands, like a vine full of overripe tomatoes or the proverbial cup of sugar. As a teacher of memoir writing, I am aware of secondary PTSD. Therapists advise I set good boundaries with students and take time out for self-care. I do, but human lives overlap. The boundaries in my building are thin walls and a few barred windows.
For the first few days after the death, I’d overhear tearful wailing followed by the practical phone calls required by the bureaucracy of death. We carried on with our lives while our neighbor made funeral arrangements, facing a future with a son who will never know his father. The whole tragedy was as an uncomfortable reminder of our own mysterious endings. When will we go? How? And the most frightening thought of all—how would I ever survive it if I were in her shoes? How could I? My husband likes to joke that we will spontaneously combust together when it’s our time to go, but we both understand reality. The clock is ticking for all of us and we generally don’t choose when our time here is up. It’s usually an unwelcome surprise.
The neighbor got a new car and went back to work. Her baby’s hair grew longer—curly, like his father’s. He started talking. They got rid of one of their dogs, who had become aggressive since the loss. A few months later, she and the baby and the remaining dog moved to a neighborhood just a few miles away—more family-friendly and more room. I hope there’s a good view, too.
Shawna Kenney is the author of the memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, Vice, The Rumpus, Bust, Narratively, Salon and more.