Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 29, 2006
Am I a terrible person, or just a normal American?
Before I begin, I want to preface this by explaining that by nature, I’m a fairly shy person. I hate calling people, I hate confrontation; I prefer to keep to myself. It takes a bit of coaxing to get me out of my shell.
The reason I’m writing is that my next-door neighbor died last night. I’ve lived next to her for two years. We rarely spoke: a few words over weeds in the summer, stories exchanged while passing out Halloween candy. She’s a nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and I could never imagine myself going next door to visit. She never made any overtures, either.
My neighbor was older, but by no means elderly. However, she was in poor health. About a year ago, she developed heart problems and we didn’t see her very often. My husband and I could some nights through our open window hear her coughing at all hours. I should have gone over to see how she was, if she needed anything (she has a huge family that visited frequently), but I could never get up the nerve to go.
A few weeks ago, the neighborhood block watch woman called to tell us our neighbor was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. I made noises about going to visit or send flowers, even though the idea scared the crap out of me. But then my husband got sick with the flu that’s going around, and then I got sick, and we were both out of work for a week … and then we got the phone call that our neighbor died.
I don’t know what I’m feeling about this, or what I should be feeling. On the one hand, I hate myself. I’ve always imagined — no, presented — myself as someone who could be relied on in times of trouble. And even though my neighbor never reached out to me, I never made any move toward her. It makes me sick to my stomach to think she was that sick — I guess I assumed she would be around forever — and I feel like I left her to die. But on the other hand, I didn’t know her; I doubt I could call her an acquaintance. And yet I get angry all over again that I didn’t make that effort to befriend her.
I don’t know exactly what I’m asking. We live in a society that’s so cut off from everyone. It’s amazing I even knew her name. I don’t know the names of anyone else on my street. Hell, I’ve never known the names of my neighbors in any of the places I’ve lived. We don’t live in a world where most evenings are spent outside chatting on the porch past dusk. But I never thought I’d be one of those people who never lifts a finger, who says, “Thank God the postman noticed the overflowing mailbox and knocked!” I guess I’m looking for absolution that she wasn’t my responsibility. But in my heart, I know in part she was, and I failed her. I’m a horrible human being for ignoring her suffering and doing nothing.
What Do I Do Now?
Dear What Do I Do Now?
Calm down and stop calling yourself names. You’re not a horrible human being. You’re just a normal person. You may not be heroically civic-minded, able to rise above the inertial isolation of typical American life. But you’re no monster. You’re just an American living by the norms of American society.
In certain other places and times, instead of ignoring the neighbors one might report their habits of worship to the bishop, who would then consider, at his leisure, whether to have them burned or beheaded. Or you might give their names to a faceless man in a long coat, who would add them to the list he keeps in his decrepit office of death. In other words, at the risk of sounding corny, one might say that this cold anonymity is one of the costs of an extraordinary degree of personal autonomy and freedom from authority of any kind, governmental, religious or social.
If you ask me, and you sort of did, this society is while quite free also quite cold, certainly dysfunctional, and curiously unable to meet certain basic human needs that are easily met by aboriginal tribes, orders of religious nomads and even probably some packs of more civilized dogs: When someone in our midst dies, we want to acknowledge it openly.
That is normal. But if our options are not spelled out, who among us is bold enough to wing it? The solemnity attendant on death tends to discourage the improvised lament. If there is no protocol, one is at a loss. And in this case, as far as you could tell, there was no protocol; no elder of the church called on you; no notice was posted announcing a memorial; no one phoned and requested your presence at a funeral or a wake.
So you naturally were in conflict. Your instinct was clear: My neighbor is dead. I should do something. But what? Dress in mourning? Wear an armband? Raise a banner in front of the house?
So let this be a lesson to you: Always send a card when someone is sick.
And get to know your neighbors. It’s the neighborly thing to do.
That way, if one of them dies, perhaps your name will appear in an address book, or your card will have been filed away by a family member, who will contact all the senders of cards and all the people in the address book, and thus there will occur the ritual acknowledgement of death that is so longed for.
What can you do now, if anything? Try to find a way to make some expression of condolence. To whom? Why, to the family, of course. Find out from the neighbor who informed you where condolences may be sent. Send condolences. Say that you were the neighbor, and while you were not close, you will miss the departed one, and you send your heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones she left behind.
This is the way we live today. Perhaps it is a shame. But this is the way we live.