Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Death in the Neighborhood

This is a true story, but the names of the family members have been changed to protect their privacy. A few weeks ago I showed it to “Susan” for the first time, and asked her permission to use it on my blog, and she gladly agreed. I gave it as a talk for Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community on July 28, 2004.

An order of the day for me is walking my dogs, and before the summer day became a furnace, I decided to take them. Outside was bright and colorful and inviting. Royal blue sky above the lush green Southern urban-residential landscape of my Atlanta neighborhood called Ormewood Park: undulating rises and ravines draped with kudzu, wisteria, and ivy out of which grow tall oaks with thick limbs reaching high, alongside squat magnolias with thick limbs reaching wide, their leaves filtering morning sun like light or dark green stained glass. Standing out in furry golden contrast to all this green, my dogs inspected and sniffed the usual places en route: telephone poles, mail box bases, root systems of trees, tall grasses, stones and curbstone. They left their messages for other canine passersby to read with their all-knowing noses.

As usual, we passed Jim’s house. The screened porch veiled the presence of Jim initially, but he spoke out in greeting. I asked how the chemotherapy was going. He said fine, that they had stopped it in preparation for the surgery. Today he was going in for a test to see if the surgery would be done to remove the original cancer. I made my usual commitment to pray for him, as well as my customary “if there’s anything I can do, let me know.” He belongs to the church down the street to which I also belong but seldom go. On another walk I had met some of his neighbors who were checking in to see how he was doing.

My dogs and I continued down his street toward the church. In front of another church, where the homeless congregate because of an outreach program there, we make a decision whether to turn onto a street, which we often do, or go further along this street, always the choice of the doggies who usually have me in tow rather than the other way around. But the next block had an emergency vehicle, paramedics, with flashing lights on the other side of the street, and a police car on our side—always problematic for my dogs, who do not take well to men in uniform, either because my dogs are pacifists, which I doubt, since they bare their teeth when it suits them to intimidate each other or a potential intruder or even me when I try to move them on the bed, or more likely, because police look like those delivery persons who invade their turf: our yard and porch.

As we approach, my intuition tells me of trouble and I wonder do I want to get involved, especially with the dogs pulling on their leashes and work waiting for me back home. The paramedics made me think perhaps some older person on the block is ill or reluctantly given up the ghost, but the police caused me to consider foul play. CJ, also a member of the church down the street, drove by me, waved, and parked, but not to greet me. She ran across the street to the house behind the box-like paramedics’ truck. I figured it was someone she knew. Doggies and my curiosity won out, and we continued down the street, alongside the police car now, then rounding the paramedics truck that blocked our view. I had already heard sobbing, and now saw its origin, young Jeff on his knees in the front yard, seemingly inconsolable but being consoled by two women, one being Sharon, the pastor of the church. Jeff is home from college for the summer.

Sharon saw me and came over to explain. He had just found his father dead in the bedroom. Jeff had laundered the cat and was bringing it into his father’s room for help drying it when he made the terrible discovery.

His father Dennis flashed in memory, not an old person, younger than me as it turned out, approaching his fiftieth birthday, but he looked way older and always smelled of alcohol. Later a neighbor said bluntly to me he had drunk himself to death, and, at his subsequent memorial service, his alcoholism was talked about openly. He hadn’t eaten in weeks and a case of beer was found in his room. He had simply collapsed in the night on his bedroom floor. I had known he had a problem with alcohol. And I know alcoholism is a disease. But other people fight life-threatening diseases, like Jim down the street. I wondered what had broken Dennis’s spirit or his heart for the fight against his own life-threatening disease?

Sharon kindly held the dogs so I might offer condolences to Jeff, still sobbing on the ground. I was self-conscious, both because I never know what to say in the face of such grief and because I was shirtless, feeling a little naked, and I doubted a half-naked gay man hugging Jeff would have felt comfortable for either of us. Thankfully, another person on the ground between us served as a buffer.

“Jeff, I am so sorry...” is all I could say and probably all I should have said. Too many words at such a time often prove to be facile, sentimental, or sophomoric. We all sat there in silence and let Jeff cry. I realized as we crouched facing the sidewalk that this was the house with the tree with an intricate root system above ground which the dogs loved to sniff and I loved to imagine is inhabited by leprechauns and gnomes, perhaps even the site of Middle Earth. I had never been in the house, but I had been in the backyard for a fireworks display, though I can’t remember whether it was on a New Year’s Eve or a Fourth of July. Then I returned to Sharon and the dogs, so she could get back to Jeff.

The dogs were well-behaved. They seem to understand grief. God knows they’ve comforted me when I’ve cried, either watching the news or a nostalgic movie. When my mother died and my then partner left, Calvin was my only child and had seen me collapse in tears, and like a St. Bernard—which he is not—came to my rescue with an elixir better than alcohol, his own sloppy licks and kisses, trying to make me better. As I say, though they were well-behaved, I pulled them away from the police officer who was trying to make nice with them, for fear they might prove distrustful. As I later found out, the policeman lives across the street.

I learned from Sharon that Dennis’s wife, Jeff’s mother, did not yet know. She was flying home at that very moment, having visited her daughter Anna, who has spent the past year in Germany as a student. Anna didn’t know either, intending to follow her mother home a week later. How horrible, I thought, not to know one’s partner in life is dead, and having to come home to discover it. And yet it was worse. Their dog, Shelly, had died unexpectedly just two days before. Jeff was sitting with her in the vet’s waiting room when she passed. I felt overwhelming grief for the family. The memorial service bulletin, as it turned out, was to have Dennis’s picture on the front and Shelly’s photo on the back.

As with Jim earlier in the walk, I told Sharon I would be glad to help, if there was anything I could do. She said, as a matter of fact, could I come and sit in the house while they went to pick up Susan at the airport? She said she didn’t think the house should be left empty. I’ve learned not to question requests made in the throes of grief. They must be honored as if they have their own logic, because they do. I said sure. She told me when to return that afternoon.

Upon my return I learned that all sorts of neighbors had been over cleaning the house and the yard. Some were going to be bringing back laundry and needed to be able to get in. Other friends and coworkers who had been notified might stop by or call. Everyone seemed to know what had happened except Susan. An email had been sent to alert church members. So there was a reason for me sitting in the house after all. And, as it turned out, this was all just the beginning of a week-long effort of neighbors and fellow church members to provide food and comfort and care to the family and the several dozen family members and friends who came from near and far for the memorial service.

But I found quite another reason for being there. I had my Dr. Zhivago in my car to read, but I left it there, feeling it might seem less than reverential to sit in the house reading. I chose instead to sit in the house reflecting on the awesome event that had transpired there that day, a death in the neighborhood. There was something almost tangible in the quiet empty house that was holy and sacred and worthy of awe. I thought of all the drama of the day, and it surfaced deep emotions from my heart and involuntary tears to my eyes, especially Jeff’s initial heartbreak and now burden of telling his mother. Strangely enough, instead of making me feel gloomy, it made me feel privileged and even uplifted to be a part of it, no matter how small a role I had been given. I felt honored.

The house was not really empty. It reminded me of the home I grew up in, filled to capacity with things: for some, a cluttered look; for others, a lived-in look. Lots of knickknacks and tchotchkes. Sitting in one of the few empty chairs, I looked up and realized I was surrounded by angels. At first I saw a dozen, and then a multitude of the heavenly host maintaining reverent silence. No, it wasn’t a mystical experience. It was a collection of wooden, plastic, porcelain, stuffed, woven, and ceramic angels that covered all horizontal surfaces: shelves, table, cabinet tops. And then I saw the candles, as many candles as angels, everywhere—unlit, of course, but with the promise of light.

And then I saw an identical shape everywhere, on fabrics, as sconces, on tchotchkes, in pictures, hanging in groups on the wall. I recognized the shape but couldn’t remember what it represented. Some were shaped by angels or the candleholders that had arms or leaves. Only later did I discover that it was the Scout fleur-de-lis or trefoil, an iris-shaped insignia whose three parts signify the three parts of the Scout promise of duty to God and country, to others, and to self. This trefoil was so pervasive it served as a house theme, like one of those geometric patterns that architect Frank Lloyd Wright would repeat in one of the homes he designed. It was a fitting graphic for a family devoted to Scouting.

The Scout emblems were all sizes and colors, but those that bore the official colors were blue to represent the sky and gold to represent the sun, and the flame at the base, I have learned, symbolizes love of humanity. In essence, then, it is a religious symbol, and I realized I was in a house of prayer, surrounded by angels, candles, and icons—a good place to reflect on death and life, and more specifically to pray for Jeff and Susan, as Jeff went with church friends and neighbors to the airport to meet and tell his mom, Susan.

I sat there, mostly in an absorbing and friendly silence, for two hours. Friends Michael and Bob brought laundry and we made the bed. A neighbor dropped over. A coworker of Susan’s from the Scout store stopped by, and we chatted for a while. She was my relief keeper of the house. She intended to stay until Susan got home, spending the night if needed, so I left soon after her arrival. I had hoped to be there when Susan returned, to offer a hug, but her passing through customs was an unusually slow process and I had an evening commitment.

One week later I made the same walk with my dogs before sitting down to write this. But I chose to turn down the side street rather than proceed past the house I had spent two hours in just one week earlier. Before reaching that corner, I again passed Jim on his porch. How did the test go? I asked, referring to the one he was to take before proceeding with the surgery. Not good, he rasped, his throat swollen from enlarged lymph nodes. Matter-of-factly, he explained, “They’re not going to do the surgery. The cancer has spread all over and there’s nothing they can do.” I was stunned. Again I committed to keep him in my prayers, again I offered to help if I can, even if it’s just to talk. He expressed his appreciation, and then added, “I have neighbors who are watching out for me, and friends from the church.”


Apologies to all who read the original version of last week’s post. I mislabeled Gov. Wallace's speech. It was "Segregation Forever" not "Integration Forever." I guess I was trying to right a wrong of history unconsciously!

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Copyright © 2004 and 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

1 comment:

  1. Death is a certainty. That is why we work hard to finish the race. To get the crown of life