Dying Alone

My neighbor, Eva, and I share a wall. It divides our apartments, intersects our lives, leaving jagged the edges where we do not meet. One of those edges was Harriet, who shared a wall with Eva.

This past week, Harriet died. She was found in her favorite chair. It seems hers was a peaceful death but it required a police presence to prove, so for a while her apartment was a crime scene.

Our apartment complex is a 55+ community, and most of us are well beyond middle age. Death is part of the deal of living but in the tenor of these times, death by natural causes has to be proven when a woman dies alone.

We should have known is what Eva and I say to one another but we never know death’s arrival.

It is not that death visited, it is that death came and no one noticed. For days. And then, someone did.

When there was no answer on Harriet’s landline, an extended family member called the police. Later, Harriet’s son, Dave, arrived. To be fair, the police could get here more quickly. Dave lives an hour away

No neighbor checked on Harriet with any regularity, if at all. Eva tells me she is working through her guilt. She and Harriet have a history, and it’s a good one, but their daily strolls around the apartment complex are long gone, almost another lifetime.

Only a few walk with us forever. Yet, living in a community where moving out usually means either nursing home or death, it seems as if connection–being good neighbors–would transcend our differences. It doesn’t.

Harriet’s death troubles me, too. Like Eva, I know I could have done more, much more. I didn’t try hard enough. When Harriet’s chihuahua, Hal, was dying, I did everything I could except give Harriet the one thing she needed, support.

She was angry, afraid, lashing at everyone. Losing Hal was losing her connection to life. All I needed to do was listen. I don’t remember doing much of that. Nor did I see her often after Hal died.

Son Dave took Harriet to her appointments, picked up her medications, and brought her groceries. He saw to her needs but he never came just to visit. That was not their relationship, and both accepted their differences. They loved, regardless.

Dave is not a talker. He just gets on with the next thing, which rarely works out for him. Like the time he brought Harriet a new-to-her recliner. She loved overstuffed recliners and wore out at least three in the time I knew her. It was where she watched TV, slept, ate, and smoked.

She all but burned up each chair. Harriet had congestive heart failure and terribly painful neuropathy. Heavily medicated, she would fall asleep in her chair, cigarette still burning. Eva tells me Harriet had all but quit smoking but just a couple of months ago, Dave brought another recliner. It had bedbugs.

As Eva says, some people are born under a dark cloud, and Dave is one of them. So it seems.

Pencil-thin, husky-voiced, and quick with a southern-spun retort, Harriet never pretended to be what she wasn’t, which is not to say she usually told the truth. Like all of us, sometimes her lies caught up with her, but she held onto them as long as she could.

I could have offered Harriet more. I didn’t. I live with that jagged edge, but in pain is the expression of experience. Mine is not to fix anyone or anything but to meet people where they are, as they are, and walk with them long enough to hear their story. In death, there are no more chances except for the living. Thank you, Harriet.

Eva says we should go no longer than two days without calling each other. Okay, I say. Maybe Eva wants Harriet to know that she, too, is grateful.

Note: For a bit more about Harriet and Hal, you might enjoy “Love Lives in Inconvenient Places.”

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