Photo: Eric Reichbaum
I saw the flashing lights. Their muted whites and blues flickered against the morning mist, glanced off the light blinding my bedroom in light. I heard the crunching gears and vaguely wondered why the trash truck was so early. And isn’t tomorrow trash day?
I was busy. I slapped peanut butter on sandwiches and hunted up scraps of of errant homework papers. I hollered up the stairs for her to find her socks, to brush his teeth, to swallow her breakfast. In the midst of the five alarm drill that is getting everybody everywhere, the passing truck with the flashing lights was just one more thing I just couldn’t deal with at that moment.
The doorbell rang later that evening. The neighborhood Whosy-Whatsit informed us that our neighbor had passed. He was elderly. He had suffered a stroke some years ago. His wife handled his care. From time to time, we passed them in our adjacent yards. As recently as this spring, my kids had offered to help him pick up debris after a famous Oklahoma storm.
On Monday, a heart attack claimed him. I haven’t seen his wife all week. Her children have filled her driveway with their cars. We haven’t seen anyone. And I haven’t rung her bell, because I can’t remember my next door neighbor’s name.
My son turns ten in three weeks. The last time I had a conversation with Mr. Neighbor Whose Name I Can’t Recall, my son swayed my back and pressed against my lungs and I prayed he would clamber out into the world. Ten years ago.
I am ashamed.
Grandma passed when our first daughter was perfecting her potty training. People had often compared my grandmother and me; we were passionate, fiery, creative and opinionated. We shared some physical features and an interest in words. But the last time my sister said that I looked like Grandma, sweet old Grandma was cherishing a grudge against me.
I’ve called it the Thanksgiving Tumult of ’92. The details don’t matter; what coursed between us on that Thanksgiving day was the electric hurt of soap opera miscommunication. I had messed up. She had messed up. Rather than patch it up immediately, Grandma sent a volley, and I obliged in returning it.
I am ashamed.
When Grandma surrendered to Alzheimer’s and age, my father asked each of her grandchildren to read or pray at her service. I was all set to read whatever it was he had asked of me. As my husband steered our car crammed with diapers and sippy cups and snacks and quiet books into the funeral home parking lot, I failed. Anxiety gripped my stomach and my heart rate soared. Sweat dropped like sadness, slipped down my back, hiding in the creases of my starched shirt.
“I can’t do this, Mom.”
Her eyes. Her eyes. I saw the whole story in her blue eyes, reflected in mine. Disappointment, the flare of anger, the slink of pity and the sigh of resignation. I saw the memory crawl across her face, a news ticker of the past. Then, the pressed lips, the unfocused gaze of compassion and grace. Grace is never earned, and I did not earn it that day.
I was ashamed. I am ashamed.
I don’t know what compelled me to reject an opportunity to honor my grandmother. I wasn’t still angry, nearly a decade after The Thanksgiving Tumult. But that isn’t right either. I was hurt. But that’s how anger works; it’s an invisible force we throw up to protect ourselves, our mighty, fallible forces. In the years since our disagreement, the wall of anger had crumbled, but the hurt it had once surrounded remained, piled in heaps, heavy like lead.
I don’t have any half good reasons for not knowing my neighbors. I am, however, full of reasons not to walk over a warm load of fresh bread and a hug. I wish I had read that psalm for my grandmother, crazy old sweet wild woman that she was. I wish I had helped Mr. Neighbor with his yard more. I wish I didn’t feel like it’s too late to extend myself to his widow.