Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Neighbors and obligations

I find that most people, regardless of the country they are from, believe a "good neighbor" is someone that is silent, never or rarely speaks to them, never asks them for anything, and never bothers them. I've been to more than 30 countries, and I find that most people don't know the names of anyone living in their apartment building or their block, and don't want to, and when they talk about their neighbors, it's to complain about them. And that's true of many communities in the Southern USA as well, the place where everyone is supposed to be "so friendly."

I guess I'm in the minority in that, to me, a neighborhood is a community, and a neighbor is someone I live with. Yes, I want my neighbors to not bother me - no loud music at midnight, no screaming kids on the trampoline in the evenings when I'm trying to watch a movie or go to bed early, no trash in the yard that attracts vermin, no criminals in the family waiting for an opportunity to steal something and all that. But I also really like neighbors that speak to me, that say "Hi" and "Good morning" and "How as Ukraine?" I like neighbors that mow my lawn ("Well, I was done with mine, and just thought I'd do yours too") or bring me food ("We made three pizzas - you want one?") or wave to me when we're all outside or express concern when they haven't seen me in a while.

I try to be what I think is a "good neighbor." I will bring a neighbor food. I toss people's newspapers closer to their doors. I'll accept a package from Fed Ex or UPS or whatever on your behalf and make sure you get it when you're home. I'll put your loose dog in my backyard and call you at work to let you know. I may not ever invite you to my house for dinner or give you any indication of my politics and I might stick to the weather and traffic in our conversations - I don't want to necessarily be friends with all of my neighbors. But we're neighbors, and we live together. That means I have to count on you if I collapse in my front yard and can't reach a phone, or a moving truck pulls up to my house while I'm out of town, or flames start shooting out of a window when I'm not home.

Two doors down from me lived a woman that most people here in our neighborhood didn't like, and some even feared. She could be loud when she talked, and she had a dog that did not like other dogs. She was schizophrenic and on a variety of medications. She hobbled when she walked, had a massive belly, never wore a bra, and wore... comfortable clothes. She believed in conspiracy theories and thought Jesse Ventura was terrific. She's been arrested at least a few times, I think mostly for fighting with people in public. The police knew her well. The outside of the house where she lived looks awful - dirty, with abandoned things all around - but that wasn't her fault, as she wasn't the owner. She lived upstairs, in one of the four apartments in the building. The apartment next to her is occupied by a scary looking man who she said is a convicted sexual predator, and the two apartments on the first floor are packed with her landlord's junk.

She loved animals. She had a retired therapy dog, and another dog she rescued from Mt. Hood, where she found her tied to a tree, shot by BBs. She had two in-door cats and three outdoor cats. She would cry if she thought any were in danger or sick. She thought I was wonderful for also loving animals, and she came to my door crying when she heard my dog had died.

She told me that, in her younger days, she'd manufactured meth, been a volunteer firefighter in Virginia, wrangled horses in Wyoming, rode with the Gypsy Jokers, and had a BS in biology. She was appalled I am an atheist. She went to church every Sunday, unless she didn't feel up to it. She moved to Forest Grove because it was last on the bus line from Portland in this direction, and she felt like this was a good place to be far away from "bad influences." She told me many times that she wanted to "live right" now, because she hadn't been a very good person for so long.

She was living off of social security and disability, and I have no doubt that she would have been homeless were it not for those programs. And what's sad is that, in the USA, she was one of the lucky ones: a disabled, elderly woman with no family, able to keep a (leaky) roof over her head.

I bought food for her dogs and cats, and helped pay for one of her cats to be fixed. I also walked her dogs when I had the time, along with a man from the group home for mentally-disabled adults - he considered her his best friend, and they had supper together almost every night.

Every time she said something hateful - about wanting her flat mate to die or wanting to get someone in trouble with the police or whatever, I would say her name and, "Is that what you really want? Do you think that's what's best?" and I could always get her to recant and reconsider and calm down. I told her once I was disappointed in her for something she said and she apologized for it every time I saw her for at least a month.

I lived with this woman, in this neighborhood. I decided it would be better to be her friend than to make her an enemy. I've had some really horrible neighbors, MUCH worse than her - unlike them, she never bothered me, never made me regret moving here, never gave me any cause to call the police or the person in charge of city codes or anyone else. I also think that kindness is something that shouldn't have to be earned and that kindness makes the world a livable place; I'm kind to anyone, including people I don't like, and will continue to be until that kindness is taken advantage of or rejected or I become frightened of you for some reason.

I had planned on going to see my neighbor last evening, after I was home from Europe, because she had been so worried about me going, and had asked my husband how I was whenever she saw him. But I didn't go see her - I had to go to the emergency room from the airport for a little problem of my own I was having, and when I finally did come home, did a little unpacking, and had some Chinese food, I was exhausted from jet lag and my little medical issue, so I went to bed. I walked by her house this morning, and was told that she'd been taken to the hospital late last night.

My neighbor died this morning.

I doubt there will be a funeral - there's no money to pay for such, and I don't think she was in touch with any family, though I hear a daughter showed up at her apartment at some point today. Her apartment-mate has said he'll take care of her two dogs this month, and maybe next month, if he can figure out a way to pay November's rent, but that he'd appreciate my trying to find a home for them. I've already pretty much adopted one cat, but there's at least two more that need homes. I fear that I'll walk by in a few days and the place will be emptied and I'll never know what happened to the animals or her things.

Her flat-mate, whom she threatened to kill on at least two occasions with me, said "She was too mean to die", and I know she must have alienated a lot of people, including her family, if she has such; maybe she ruined so many birthday parties and Christmas's, asked to borrow money and called to be bailed out too many times, picked too many fights, and hurt and betrayed anyone who could have loved her - maybe her isolation was all of her own making. I get that, and I respect anyone's decision to cut off ties with someone who has hurt them so, even a blood-relation.

But I could judge her only on what I saw and experienced here and now, and what I saw was a woman who loved animals, whose compassion for them was true and deep, who was always happy to see me and who loved her neighbor friend that she spent so much time with. Am I and that neighbor friend the only two people in the world are mourning her?

I'll miss her stories. I'll stress over finding homes for these animals - I fear that one of the dogs will be branded as un-adoptable by whatever authorities decide such and will be doomed to be put down, and the cats will be forced outside just as winter begins. My husband will be annoyed at how much time I stress over this.

And whomever moves in to that apartment will be worse. Far worse.

I'm sad for my neighbor. My friend. I'm so sorry I couldn't be kind to her one more time.


  1. In you, she found a good neighbor, a reliable friend, and someone who both encouraged her to be her best self and could clearly see her innate kindness. She was lucky to have you, Jayne.