Neighbors

by Terrica Joy in


Wrong.  I’m in the wrong.

This is hard for me to admit.  Let me explain…

On Friday I posted this angry little blurb on my fb status:

There's the absolute sweetest bulldog named Maggie who lives downstairs from us with these three total bachelors who sit around and smoke pot all the time...and they leave her for hours and sometimes days on end. She's been HOWLING and crying for hours and hours today. It's breaking my heart. I'm about ready to call someone…

It was true.  And poor Maggie howled for 10 painful hours before anyone came home to check on her.  By that point Josh had already called our landlord to ask him to call the guys and I'd left a note on their door offering to check on her or walk her if ever they needed.  It was my way of pretending to be nice but definitely letting them know I was annoyed, and aware.  I also left my phone number. 

A short while later much to my surprise, the guy who owns her (the irresponsible, careless, selfish, pot-smoking guy) actually called me.  But before I tell you how that all panned out…

When Josh and I first moved to Dallas from Tulsa 6 years ago, we lived in a gorgeous, historic loft in Deep Ellum overlooking downtown Dallas.  There was nothing about that loft I didn’t adore: exposed brick, 18 ft ceilings, concrete pillars and floors.  We were referred to by everyone in our building as ‘the married couple’ like some kind of novelty because, well, we were.  Our neighbors were all crazy tattoo artists, gay couples, party-crazed singles and the like.  There were a few couples who lived together, but we never once met another married couple. 

After a year in the loft we moved to the suburbs in Arlington with three of Josh’s buddies from college.  We shared a huge 5-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac with an enormous backyard pool and hot tub.  The intention was to live together in order to save while giving a new business venture a go.  Let’s just say three bachelors plus me and Josh equaled massive, epic failure complete with me screaming at the top of my lungs and dramatically throwing things from the second floor as they all looked on in stunned silence.  I now refer to that 6-month period as my personal ‘dark ages’.  Enough said.

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Following the trauma of the ‘dark ages’ we retreated to the seclusion of a condo in Coppell the size of a Hyundai Sonata from which I rarely stepped into the light of day for fear of human contact.  (Living with the guys had adverse effects I’m still dealing with on occasion.)  And then a second gorgeous, though this time modern loft in Las Colinas with 30 ft ceilings that looked out over a canal system with waterfalls and authentic looking opera-singing-gondoliers paddling lazily by.  I didn’t see much of my neighbors at this place either except for the scary looking body-building guy who blasted techno music all hours of the day and refused to make eye contact. 

Somewhere in the midst of all the moving and changing scenery, I began to have this deep-seated longing for neighbors.  Not just people who lived close-by, but people I actually liked.  People who I’d be happy to run into at the mailbox or in the hallway.  People I didn’t want to call the cops on all the time.  Heck, maybe even people I’d bake zucchini bread for on occasion!  I began having these daydreams of sitting on the porch with iced tea chatting about work and life and travels… 

I think it had to do with the need to simply connect with other people when you work from home and develop almost unhealthy, co-dependant relationships with your dogs.  Or completely overwhelm your husband by clinging to him like glue, following him from room to room and breathlessly chatting his ear off from the moment you hear his footsteps approaching the door each evening.  Or perhaps it had to do with growing up in small town East Texas where neighbors had always been family, practically helping to raise you.  Whatever the reason, the longing became real enough that I actually started to pray about it.

When our lease in Las Colinas finally expired, we made the decision to move back towards downtown Dallas to the historic Lakewood area.  I fell head-over-heels in love with Swiss Ave and a hundred year old 4-plex with original hardwoods and antique pocket doors.  As the landlord walked us through the unit, I vividly remember the moment he mentioned the 82-year-old British man who lived alone downstairs.  My ears perked up.  I peppered him with enough questions to learn his name was Peter Hall, a recently retired, world-renowned costume designer for the opera.  “Nicest man you’ll ever meet,” were the words that sealed the deal.  I gave Josh a look that communicated I wanted the place, and that was that. 

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(A few glimpses of Swiss Ave.)

A few weeks after we settled in, I spent an entire morning trying to work up the courage to knock on his door.  I was giddy with excitement and terrified he might not like me, shattering my dreams of neighborly friendship.  Finally with a little brown paper bag offering of red plums in hand, I crept down the front staircase.  Finding his door ajar I peeked out onto the porch.  There he was sitting quietly in the sun, snow-white hair, suit jacket and vest, cane resting in his hand.  His proper British accent delighted me to no end, and I ended up standing on the porch for over an hour just chatting and listening and chatting some more.  In the middle of our introduction, another older man with gentle blue eyes wandered onto the front porch and introduced himself as Bill.  It only took 5 minutes for me to decide I adored him as well. 

That first day was the beginning of many wonderful exchanges with the both of them.  I would leave bags of organic produce from the co-op where we volunteered on Saturday mornings at Mr. Hall’s door, and in exchange he’d leave sweet hand-written thank you cards on the banister for me to find.  Bill was always out back potting flowers or lovingly washing his Harley, though well beyond the ability to ride it anymore.  He’d light up at the sight of my dogs, walk with me to let them potty, rattle my ear off about his new grandbaby.  He’d call to remind me to leave the water dripping when it was supposed to freeze, leave bags of fresh herbs at my doorstep, delightfully drive me to pick up treasures on random curbs when they wouldn’t fit in my car, occasionally wake me up at 3 am singing Sinatra at the top of his lungs.  I frequented Mr. Hall’s perfect English sitting room, sitting for hours as he shared endless accounts of his work all over the world.  I was fascinated to learn he ended up in Dallas after being personally commissioned by local billionaire and one-time presidential candidate, Ross Perot, to help design a performance hall.  He’d tell me jokes and stories about working with people like David Bowie and Luciano Pavarotti.  Still sharp as a tack, that Mr. Hall.   

I loved them.  I loved them both.  I loved knowing they were close, knowing we were all here during the day even if we didn’t see each other.  I loved how we all took care of each other in our own ways, big and small.

Just before Christmas year before last as I was sitting with Mr. Hall one day, he mentioned he’d be gone for a couple weeks to have double knee replacement.  He assured me there was no need to worry, standard procedure and all.  A couple of weeks turned into months, but after he called from the rehab center to say he was fine just taking longer than expected, I didn’t worry too much.  But then more months passed.  I was on the verge of freak-out when I noticed his light on one day.  Bill told me he was finally home.  I left a note and brilliant vase of yellow daffodils at his door careful not to overwhelm him, but just as I was getting ready to drop in for a visit a few days later, Bill informed me he was suddenly back in the hospital.  Apparently the surgery didn’t take and he was getting no circulation below the knee.  There was talk of double amputation, which made me want to burst into tears, and then there was silence.

One afternoon shortly thereafter I heard sirens and looked out the back windows to see a group of people gathered around Bill’s backdoor.  Josh arrived home moments later and stopped on his way up to see what had happened.  Apparently Bill had fallen off his back steps and been stuck there until help came.  It broke my heart to think of him being down there unable to get up when I was just upstairs.  And I knew he was humiliated, because rather than try to call me, he’d called his sister all the way across town.  Josh and I had both assumed the fall was because of his cancer treatments.  He'd been diagnosed with lung cancer some months before and the treatments made him dizzy.  We worried about him constantly, watching him withering away before our very eyes, refusing to eat because the treatments sapped his appetite.  I was also no stranger to his struggle with alcohol, having witnessed it firsthand more times than I could count.  Josh and I had both pulled him up off the floor a time or two when he’d fallen and corralled him in his house to keep him from driving when we knew he was drunk.  He had a number of demons he wrestled, mostly in the night, hence the Sinatra singing at the top of his lungs to help keep them at bay.  I knew the alcohol was an escape from the harsh realities of his every day struggles, but I never would have guessed what his brother-in-law shared with Josh that afternoon the ambulance came after he'd fallen off the steps. 

He didn’t have cancer.  He’d never had cancer.  It was all an attempt to mask the alcohol addiction.  The moment Josh told me I felt this swarm of emotions rise up in my chest.  I was both shaken and heartbroken.  How could he not have cancer?  I asked him about it on a weekly basis.  No way my gentle, loving, bend-over-backwards for anyone Bill had lied about that.  I almost didn’t believe it.  I wanted to call his brother-in-law and tell him he was wrong, Bill did have cancer, he must of just been keeping it a secret because he didn’t want to upset them.  But I would have been wrong.

The ambulance took him away that day and didn’t bring him back.  A few weeks later I noticed a note on his door saying he’d be away awhile and I knew they’d put him in rehab.  Bill was gone.  Mr. Hall was gone.  My days were quieter than ever. 

I left Bill a number of messages saying we missed him, we were thinking about him.  But he never called back.  I assumed it was because he couldn’t, so I just kept calling and leaving more messages.  Then one afternoon as Josh as I were walking out, a man stepped out of Mr. Hall’s door and handing us a flyer for an estate sale.  I was confused.  Shocked.  What??  I don’t understand…  He apologized for the abruptness and informed us that Mr. Hall had passed 6 weeks prior.  My throat closed up.  6 weeks ago?How could we not have known…  Apparently he’d had heart issues for some time and all the stress of the surgery and rehab were more than his weak heart could take.  I felt angry.  Robbed.  Heartbroken.  And strangers were coming to dig thru his belongings and haggle over their worth, his worth, his memory…all that was left in the world of him.  He’d not had a single remaining family member.

I left Bill yet another message letting him know Mr. Hall was gone.  Still no response.

A few weeks later as I was rushing out to meet Christine, I slung the backdoor open and was shocked to see Bill standing there, shirtless, watering the plants with my hose.  I froze for a moment glinting against the sun to make sure it was him, then ran and threw my arms around him.  He smiled very sheepishly, didn’t say much.  I was in such a rush I didn’t have time to stay but I gushed about how happy I was to see him, so glad he was home.  He told me he’d been in Austin and was going back shortly.  I asked if he’d be home again soon and he said he would. 

But he wasn’t.

I only saw him once more, walking out to his truck with a load of stuff.  I ran down to hug him and asked how he was.  He smiled sheepishly again, seemingly almost ashamed to see me, told me he was doing the only thing that mattered, spreading the message that God was the only answer.  I was so thrilled to see him looking so healthy I didn’t ask too many questions.  A few weeks later moving trucks came to pack up all his stuff.  We haven’t seen him since.  I feel robbed a second time, like the scab has been ripped off a not quite healed wound.

When the three bachelors moved in downstairs I wanted to cry.  Mr. Hall’s unit had been sitting empty for several long months.  It was sad, but in a way it being empty felt like it was still his, like his memory echoed from room to room.  And that brought me comfort.  But when the guys moved in with their parties and pot-smoking ways, I wanted to scream, to make them leave immediately!  Who were these losers living in Mr. Hall’s home??  It made me livid to the point that I laid awake sleepless for several nights on end, infuriated.

Maggie, the bulldog, is the only bright spot in their living here.  She’s sweet, cuddly, wouldn’t know a stranger.  I’ve met all of the guys, but I’ve made no real effort to get to know them.  Whenever I see them I wave and if they have Maggie I stop to love on her, but that’s it.  They seem nice enough, but I haven’t cared.  They invite us to their parties every time they throw one, tell us to bang on the door if they get too loud.  But we don’t.  We call the cops instead, hoping they’ll smell the pot at the door and arrest them or something. 

This is the ugliness of my heart.

After I posted that blurb on FB spitefully threatening to call someone about Maggie in hopes that they'd take her away from them, he called and left me a message, the guy who owns her.  It was the kindest, most sincere and grateful message you could imagine.  He said he’d rushed home panicked to check on her after our landlord had finally called him, but she had apparently just gotten locked inside a bedroom and freaked out.  He thanked me over and over again for calling, apologized profusely that we’d had to listen to the howling all day, wished us a lovely weekend and said he’d see us soon.  I listened to the message twice, stunned at his sincerity.  And then I felt terrible for having wished so many cruel things upon him.

All weekend I thought about them, the guys.  I thought how awful I am to have judged them so harshly and refused to get to know them despite their friendliness and attempts to get to know us.  Truth is, I haven’t wanted to know them.  In a way I’m still mourning the loss of Mr. Hall and Bill, what we had here, our own little family, not quite ready to move on yet.  And in a way I’m just being stubborn and selfish. 

Who am I to decide who needs love and encouragement and who doesn’t?  Who am I to be judgmental and critical?  What makes me think I have the right to be selective, to play favorites?

I’ve spent the last few days searching my heart, admitting that I’m wrong for refusing to ‘love my neighbors’ for whatever reason, regardless of how right or logical my reasoning sounds:  They’re party guys.  They smoke a lot of pot.  We don’t have anything in common.  They probably won’t be here long anyway.

I lamented to my friend Aaron about how unfair it is, how much I loved Bill and Mr. Hall and didn’t want to be here at the END of it all.  He shocked me when he looked at me pointedly and said, “Terrica, have you considered that maybe that’s precisely WHY God put you here?  Because it was near the end for them??  Because the harvest is ripe?”  I had no response.

But he’s right.  He’s so right.  God knew all along what would come of the both of them, and I can safely say I loved them wholly, sincerely, and as best I knew how.  My longing to maintain what we had is both delusional and selfish.  It was about me, what I wanted.  I couldn’t keep them here forever, nor was I supposed to.  I was only to love them well while they were here, and as much as I knew how, I did that. 

I don’t believe by any stretch of the imagination that I’m to love these new guys in precisely the same kind of way, however I do know that God has called me to love them well, just as He did Mr. Hall and Bill. 

I’m going to try to do that.  I can’t say that I know what it looks like, but I admit I’ve been entirely wrong in my initial approach (or lack thereof.)  I’m going to try.  At every opportunity, I’m going to try...

(click here to see an amazing article that ran in New York Times following Mr. Hall’s death) 

How do you feel about your neighbors?