I knock on my neighbor’s door to give her a bottle of sparkling cider. She is in her late 80′s, lives alone, and what does it cost me to bring her a little holiday cheer? It costs me $8.99, and I can swing that. My plan was to run the few doors over, pop by, and make the whole transaction last 90 seconds. I am wearing a T-shirt even though it is 65 degrees out, because that’s how little time I have - not enough to turn back and grab a cardigan.
She opens the door in a turtleneck and sweater, gold beanie hat on, tissue in hand. “It’s so windy and cold,” she tells me, hugging her thin frame. Hesitation is my initial reaction when she invites me in. I have too many things going on right now. I have to work. I have to write. I have to pump. I have to call my sister back. I have to make sangria. I have to let the dogs out. I have to DO. Babycare is only for another 3 hours and I’m used to moving like a blur for every good minute of it. And yet her puffy, red eyes must communicate a secret message to my brain because before I know it, I am entering her door.
I shake my leg, bopping it up and down, when we take a seat at her table. On it are envelopes and stamps, fancy pens, legit stationary. There is also a book on elementary Italian, as well as a gigantic dictionary of Spanish verbs. This is how somebody keeps their mind sharp - they write and they learn. My neighbor pulls her glasses down and rubs the bridge of her nose with her crooked fingers. I glance at my watch.
“My brother passed away yesterday,” she whispers. “But I’m not gonna cry about it anymore.” And she doesn’t. Instead she smiles, telling me about his demeanor and his travels, and about what a huge, empty hole he will leave behind. About what a bright guy he was, about how they mended the fight they had once in Mexico City, about sitting with him as he withered away, when he told her, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of living.” She pauses after saying that, she who is no stranger to death, her husband having gone a few years ago. She who is still alive, tasked to make each slow day count, selected to watch the world change from a window.
In the silence that follows I look around her home: wooden beams on the ceiling, tan carpet on the floor, a few creepy, mandatory old-person-dolls on the mantel, but otherwise it is cozy in here. It is nice. It smells like tuna salad. There are opera CDs on the shelf. Sunlight peeks in through the blinds. A feeling of routine and familiarity hangs in the air.
“Don’t you have to go?” she asks.
It’s funny how many thoughts can race through your mind in a single second. Loud thoughts combatting for attention like, “HELL YEAH I GOT SHIT TO DO!” and “Uh-oh, I’m stuck here” and “I need to pee” and “I can’t waste my precious minutes” and “Did the recipe call for apples or pears?” Underneath the clamor, I detect a quiet one, a still one, a thought that says, “No. I will sit here.”
This is the thought I choose.
My leg stops shaking. "Tell me more about him,” I say.
I walked into my neighbor’s house having lastima for her late morning idleness and her beanie hat and her loneliness. But in paying attention to her, in taking in her stories, in being a receiver for half an hour, my lastima morphs into gratitude. It is a gift not to think about myself for 30 blessed minutes. As I listen to what her life used to be like, I accept that, yes, older people are wiser, and that, yes, we are ignoring some of our greatest teachers, and that, yes, it must be damn hard to fade into irrelevance one day at a time when really they’re as vibrant as they’ve always been. It’s just that hardly anybody notices. Maybe I never noticed before now. The disgrace makes me shiver.
I keep myself busy to avoid the discomfort of being alone. But when you’re gray and wrinkled, the only way to stay sane might be to lean into this very feeling. My neighbor has spent years leaning. Today, though, she needed somebody to talk to. More than that, today I needed to be that somebody.
My to-do list tugs harshly then, bending me to its tyranny. A wave of sadness follows as reality invades intimacy, and I stand up to say goodbye. At that moment, she starts to cry, but not the grief kind, more like relief. Tears fall from my eyes to join hers, tears I didn’t even know were waiting. We hug on my way out.
“He sounds like he was a good man,” I tell her. She nods.
My neighbor thanks me as I walk away. I know it isn’t for the cider.
p.s. I’m no hero in this story. It was half a friggin hour. But in that time, doing became being, and 2 became 1, however brief. I owe her the thank you.