Close Enough to Be Unavoidable
I was in a hurry when I drove past my next-door neighbor's house early Monday morning on my way to work. If I'd been walking, I would have stopped to chat. Anna and I had exchanged pleasantries every month or so the last couple years, our houses on either side of the stream flowing through our neighborhood. We would talk about tackling the vines overtaking the stream banks, gardening, dogs, car repairs and work stress. We even discovered we were born the same year.
Our neighborliness extended beyond words. Soon after my wife and I moved in, a large pine branch fell, partially blocking the road in front of our house. On her own initiative, Anna recruited a man down the street with a chainsaw to cut the branch in foot-long pieces. This past Christmas, I left a bag of cookies on her doorstep. She said her sweet tooth appreciated the holiday gesture.
That morning on my work commute, there was a white van in her driveway, and I slowed to get a better look at the men setting up a ladder against the house. I hastily shot Anna a text, just to make sure she knew about the men working in her yard. The text bubble turned green rather than the typical blue.
Another unusual sign.
That night I told my wife maybe Anna had suddenly moved away. It reminded me of our previous neighbors moving without notice. The darkened windows, the empty porch and driveway, a pile of furniture and appliances left at the curb. I figured I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, naively thinking I'd receive a response from Anna soon. Perhaps she was visiting an area without cell service.
Two days later, a text popped up from another neighbor. The thread contained several phone numbers I didn't recognize, but it was common for this neighbor, a pro at community organizing, to blast out an invitation to a Halloween costume party or a backyard summer cookout. The tone of this note was different. There had been an accident over the weekend, a car crash. Anna, our neighbor across the stream, was dead.
It was so final. On Monday, my brain had protected me from considering the worst outcome. On Wednesday night, after I saw the obituary online, I walked by Anna’s house. There was no small talk this time. She wasn't out in the yard turning over the soil in the garden or playing with her dog. I sent a thank you message to the neighbor who let us know about Anna’s passing, and learned there would be a funeral the following weekend. It was at a nearby church I had visited once. Had Anna been a member there?
As the week continued, I reflected on other aspects of Anna we hadn't known. It wasn't appropriate or necessary for me to know these things, seeing as we were merely neighbors, casual acquaintances. But what if our lives had been more connected? Would her death have delivered a greater blow?
Anna loved to chat, and sometimes I felt guilty for wanting to resume my walk or return to my lawn mowing. As in any conversation with a human being, it could be awkward, an investment of time and attention. A dance between vulnerability and guardedness. And an even greater risk to be known when the person lives next door. Instead, we convince ourselves it's better to avoid intertwining our lives.
Mostly it was unsettling, seeing Anna's house and knowing it was now empty. Someone we’d grown accustomed to greeting was abruptly gone; the four walls and roof across the stream were now a physical reminder of her absence. I’m fortunate to have not lost many people close to me, so the shadow of death can feel far off in the future, distant and nameless. While belief in an afterlife can offer hope at a person’s passing, offering a trite platitude to someone grieving a loss can be like aggravating an injury. The imminent nature of death had moved in close enough to be unavoidable; I was confronted with my mortality.
Often, in the face of death, the swell of emotions is dominated by anger and hopelessness. In the news the same week was the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols, a young black man close to Anna’s age, at the hands of Memphis police officers. In the wake of Tyre's senseless and grevious murder, his family and community were thrust into the traumatic grief of accepting their loved one's death while mourning its cruel injustice. It shouldn't take Tyre's death and a prolonged, nationwide reckoning with racism and police violence to prove the value of his life. But time and again, death upsets the illusion of our assumptions and values, acting as a clarion call for change, for bringing to account.
Anna's funeral occurred on a Saturday, less than a week after her death. When my wife and I arrived, the church was already full of family and friends, so we had to find a place to stand outside the back door of the auditorium. The renovated, contemporary church building was located in a busy shopping plaza, sharing a parking lot with a grocery store, fast food restaurants, thrift shop, gym and a block party with a bounce house. We stood on the buffed concrete floor of the church hallway, leaning against the recently painted white walls, shoulder to shoulder with strangers. The back door to the auditorium framed the stage, a dark carpeted platform with spotlights trained on a wooden cross.
The next three hours were filled with stories from family, friends, mentors and coworkers. A couple pastors who’d known Anna shared some spiritual insight on living a life of love, but the funny stories about her were the most memorable. The words spoken from the stage reiterated Anna’s generosity. She rescued food from a redistribution center and shared the bounty with her circle of friends (although the misshapen produce and battered cans were not always warmly received). She was a member of a traveling choir in high school and sang in a local rock band as an adult. Several video recordings of her singing were played throughout the ceremony. Many days, one coworker who lived nearby shared with the audience, Anna raced her to their office (to prove which was the most efficient route, Anna would use Google Maps to wind her way through the city).
To her family she was known for hating laundry and taking a while to get to the point while talking. To her closest community she was known for being spontaneous and arriving late to events, but always willing to greet the lonely and socially awkward. Time and again she was remembered as having a strong sense of humor.
My wife and I could instantly recognize what we knew of Anna's personality in the heartfelt tales. But many of the details in the stories were new to us. There was only so much we learned about our neighbor in short chats at her mailbox (although many were longer than socially conventional; we could agree with the storytellers about her loquaciousness). Listening to her bandmates' tribute at the funeral made us wish we could have gone to one of her concerts rather than settling for a recording of her performance.
Most importantly, the wealth of stories seemed to invite her spirit into the room with us. As relatively new acquaintances, we were still getting to know our neighbor. For those closer to her, the recounting of her positive traits and entertaining mannerisms was a bittersweet goodbye, a way of communicating their pride of having known her. Somehow her parents were able to get through their parting words with few tears, though it was obvious they were wrestling with the prospect of life without their beloved daughter. Her mother brought a jar of expired peanut butter to the podium, a tongue-in-cheek token of Anna’s commitment to reducing food waste. The neighbor who had notified us of the accident shared a humorous and well-received story.
"I saw her before I met her," she said of Anna. It had been nighttime and Anna's windows were open. She apparently hadn't done laundry and was walking through the house without an article of clothing in sight.
For me, attending the funeral moved beyond coming to terms with the empty house across the stream. The simple power of the personal tributes moved me. In her thirty short years, our neighbor made a profound and loving impact on so many lives. In the midst of those who live on without us, what are we but their stories and memories? At our best, we become the soothing spirit of our actions and words, of who we were when our lungs were filled with breath. To become the stories of those we love, we have to let them close enough to experience our personality. To give them permission to interpret our being, to carry our essence with them.
I learned from Anna's dad's tribute that she'd scheduled to have her roof replaced the day after her car accident. When I drove by her house and saw the white van and workmen, I was witnessing an event she'd initiated before her untimely passing. At her funeral, I witnessed a constellation of storied relationships she'd initiated with her kind and welcoming presence. In her heartbreaking absence, we will continue to share our stories. And perhaps, we will learn to share them more often and sooner.