I had a rough day yesterday. My neighbor died unexpectedly. His wife called in a panic first in the morning to say she found him on the floor and thought he was dead. I jumped in my car to go over. We’re right next to each other but there’s just a lot of trees and a creek between us. I called 911 from my front porch as I headed out.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia in the midst of such serious talk of death: From my front porch I reached the Hopkins County 911 operator on my cell phone. But from next door my neighbor got the Wood County operator. So we had two sets of ambulances and sirens driving around us trying to find the house. We could hear them but they kept driving on the wrong roads.
We don't know our neighbors out here very well. Beaven was even surprised she had our phone number. Beaven is of the theory that the best neighbors are the ones you seldom see. We try very hard to not be a nuisance or a bore. People stay to themselves out here. It might just happen naturally because of the distance that separates each house. Trees and creeks and barbed wire fences make barriers.
There is an intimacy to death that reminds you of the fragility of life. I didn’t really know these folks much more than to see them a few times a year and have polite conversation over the fence. So this intimacy felt strange but at the same time it felt comfortable. Comfortable? Comfortable in the reality that death happens to us all. I know I won’t escape it. Unless Beaven and I go together, the odds are one of us will be left alone. It could have easily been me calling her to my house to help me.
Beaven and I witnessed an excruciatingly sober parade of professionals who came: first, the EMT guys, then the Sheriff, the fire department , the coroner and finally, the funeral home. Every single one of these men were soft-spoken, gentle, thoughtful, and totally professional.
I knew our neighbors had two daughters and a bunch of granddaughters on their way over. The granddaughters arrived first and were very emotional in a way that I knew my own grands would be if Beaven or I had died. We waited until the daughter got there and then we went home. I think the whole process took a couple of hours but time stands still when death provides eternity. There were a lot of details to attend to but, at the same time, it seemed like not really very many to document 76 years of life.
I went to the store and got lunch meat and a ham. I took them the lunch fixings and promised the ham after it warmed up in my oven. I made cole slaw and put beans in a crock pot. At my age I've seen the drill often enough to know what to do even if I haven't done this as many times as my church sisters have. Women know this stuff. They have it perfected to an art. We've seen our mothers do these things. We grow up learning how to do this and knowing someday it would be our time to do it.
Food was the last thing on their minds but I knew would be something they didn’t want to have to think about when they did get hungry. I called their church to let them know. I walked over to see the other neighbor who shares a fence with them. Since both couples have horses I thought Mr. Berger might help with the horses for her if she needed it.
By the time you get to be my age you’ve known more than a few people who have died. There is an amazing set of customs and rituals that neighbors do. And it’s a comfort to know the rules.
I did all the neighborly things that I could think of to do. Last night when the day settled down Beaven and I talked for a long time. We both have about the same understanding about how we would approach each other’s death and what neighbors do in times like this.
Beaven and I both understood how important it was for us yesterday to be “background people.” Once the array of sheriffs and funeral home guys assembled in the living room we saw that our main job would be quietly sitting in the corner, holding the Boston Terrier to keep him calm. It seems like such a small job but I knew it made a difference that they didn’t have to worry about him jumping around and distracting them.
But in the end, we didn’t do the one thing that everyone wanted. We didn’t reverse the law that says people have to die. You do your best and move on.