When we die, where do we go? Does more of us remain in the grave, or where we have lived?
My husband Peter and I have lived in this down-at-heels farmhouse for three summers now. It is an odd house, in an odd sort of a neighborhood; I have hundreds of acres of woods, much of it owned by various public groups, in my backyard, a suburban neighborhood of close-built ranch houses across the street, and a neighbor in such another house not a stone's throw from my kitchen window.
Despite the fact that deer and bears and hawks and owls are all regular visitors to my yard, despite my flourishing garden and apple trees, I do not live in anything like isolation. And there is no place on my property that is truly private from my neighbors or from the street.
I'll admit, my dream of a house in the woods was of a house off by itself in the woods--maybe not one where I could never glimpse the smoke from my neighbors' chimneys, but definitely one where I would never have to see my neighbor unless I sought them out. I wanted privacy and solitude in a natural setting, and I did not get that when we found this house.
Instead, I got Pat and Joyce, a couple in their early 60's, whose chemically-enhanced lawn was the pride of their existence, and whose lawn ornaments, ride-on mower, and drifts of cigarette smoke were far from the pastoral fantasy I'd wished for.
From the first time we visited our house, they were there: Pat nearly always with a beer in his hand, and Joyce with a cigarette most often firmly clenched between her lips, as she dug up a weed or transplanted an annual. Pat was quiet and reserved, but Joyce's whiskey-rough voice was raised again and again with greetings, advice, questions, advice, advice, and more advice. She had advice on how we fenced the part of the yard for our dogs, on the overgrown state of the perennial beds we inherited from the owner a decade ago--a particular friend of hers--on how we cared for our dogs, took out our trash, hung out our laundry. (It was Pat who once advised Joyce, in Peter's hearing, to wait to be asked for that advice, and to let us do what we wanted in our own yard.)
I didn't think I was going to like her at all.
I was wrong.
While I continued to find the drifts of cigarette smoke annoying--and in fact could not breathe the few times I was inside their house, where the lingering smoke triggered my allergies and made me wheeze--and never lost my sense that my gardening was never going to live up to Joyce's standards, her company especially grew on me over time. She was upfront--OK, meddlesome. But also generous. It was typical that she not only offered advice on setting up our dog fence, but actually came over on a hot summer's day and insisted on helping us to set it up, offering us supplies left over from projects of her own and her energy and enthusiasm on a day when we were mostly wilted from the heat and effort of moving.
We got to calling out news to each other over the hedge. She came into the yard to admire the dogs (and to advise us on proper walks schedules, especially for our lab mix, who she adored). I asked her to help me identify weeds from unknown perennials in the border between our yards... she brought me a clump of celery the size of my thigh, carrots from her garden... Somehow, we passed from a strained politeness (my mother's voice in my inner ear: "Be nice!") to something like warmth. I don't remember any boundary markers between wariness and friendship. Suddenly, there we were.
When Peter built my raised beds for me, there she was, with advice we were actually asking for. And when we didn't take all of it, she shrugged her shoulders, and gave us more that we could use.
She warned us that the arborist was not going to be able to save our hemlock from the wooly adelgids that are plaguing it. (She was right, though it is not dead yet.) She gave us fresh tomatoes; I gave her elderberry jelly. She let me harvest black raspberries from her back yard and dill from her garden; I gave her pickles. She told us stories about her friend Eddie, the master gardener who created our garden beds, and we told her stories about our daughter, soon to be married, and her soon-to-be-husband, Nate.
This past fall, when a freak October blizzard left us without power for almost a week, Peter took a snow rake to her roof, and she let us use her gas grill for making our coffee.
We were neighbors. And we were friends.
She delighted in our successes with our raised beds, showed me how to dig and divide perennials, and let us come over and cuddle and coo over their new dog, Sydney, when they brought home a rescued Bichon to keep Pat company.
For Pat was increasingly ill. On disability for years for a blood disorder, he began to have repeated hospitalizations for hemorrhaging, sometimes in his brain. He'd lost fingers to his disease before, but now he was losing mental acuity as well.
And Joyce was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she went in for surgery, she gave Peter (who could breathe the air in their house) detailed instructions on Pat's medication schedule, and asked him to check in on her husband each day. She was afraid for him, and she was afraid for herself.
I don't know how religion entered our conversations. I think I may have simply needed to let Joyce know that she was not alone; I told her, during one of our conversations in the back yard that I was "holding her in prayer."
Well. Holding her in the Light. "Prayer" is such a loaded expression, meaning so many things to so many people. And it implies, in most minds, a Christianity I don't possess.
The phrase I chose was cowardly, perhaps. But to have said, "I'm doing spells for your health and for Pat's," while also true, would have been more about me and my needs than about her needs and Pat's. I couldn't do it; why lay more questions, potential conflicts and misunderstandings, long-winded explanations, on a woman who had more than enough on her mind? So I said "prayer," and let her assume what she felt comfortable assuming.
I fear she thought me to be something I am not. Peter, too. But I couldn't really make myself care about that.
Joyce lost her hair. We praised her wig. Pat came home. We asked after his health. Joyce's hair returned, she began landscaping the very back edge of her property, we saw one another more and less and more as the seasons passed.
And then Pat died, and on a rainy day this spring, we attended his memorial at a funeral home downtown.
There was an open casket, and many formally dressed strangers... and Joyce. And I hugged her--for, though Joyce was not a huggy person, she and I had passed that point in friendship some years ago. And I felt how small she was in my arms, and how fragile. Though she was not a thin or a slight woman, she felt birdlike when I held her.
"It's so lonely without him," she said to me as we faced the coffin where Pat lay, a Red Sox cap beside him. He lay so still on the pale satin lining, and there was no life left in or near him anywhere--no sense that this had ever been a person, other than that outward husk. "How am I ever going to go on?"
We made plans to dine together.
She broke them; Joyce was not ready to be with anyone yet.
Weekends and five workdays passed--the five days of compassionate leave that our society affords for the death of a life partner--and she returned to work. And died there, that very first day back. Went into her office, shut the door, and had a heart attack. She was gone by the time a coworker found her there, lying on the floor.
My neighbors, Pat and Joyce, died within two weeks of one another. Relatives came, cleaned out the house, ran a tag sale, and put the house up on the market. The sun still shines, her grass still grows--and is mown, on a ride-on mower, by a friend in the neighborhood who does it for the memory of her--but there is no plot of dill, or tomatoes, or celery or carrots growing in her yard this year. It is empty and barren, even as all those flowers she planted all the many years of her life in that house continue to bloom and bloom and bloom.
Somehow, I cannot wrap my head around the strangeness of it all: of death and what happens to us when we die. And so I pause at my kitchen window, dumbfounded by the lawn ornaments, dumbfounded by the flowers, the greenery, the grass next door, just beyond the hedge.
When I hang my laundry, I pause, waiting for Joyce's voice to greet me. When I return home, I stand in the driveway, looking for her. And every glimpse across my yard reminds me that she is gone, and she is never coming back.
I remember that I didn't think I was going to like her. I remember that I used to brace myself, with my mother's lessons in politeness, whenever I heard her voice.
It is one thing, that we turn away from those among us who do real harm in the world. But if we are honest, how much more often do we refuse to see the humanness in ordinary men and women who might, like my neighbor Joyce, become friends if we would only allow ourselves to see them properly--unique, whole, and beautiful, and here for so short a time?
We forget; I forget. One neighbor is not enough to break me of a lifetime's habit of cynicism. But I am intending, at least, to remember, which is something. And I have Joyce's flowers to remind me--Joyce's flowers, and the care she gave to mine.