Death Sandwich

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of two of my neighbors. One of the women died from failing health. One killed herself. One was 48 years old; the other only 25. They died one day apart.

Victoria lived across the street from me in a rent-controlled apartment. She stayed to herself, but I often watched her pained life ebb and flow from my kitchen window while I washed dishes. Every so often someone from her family would park in the no-parking zone and wait for Victoria to hobble slowly out her front door, down the two steps, and get into the car. Since Victoria couldn’t drive, they took her to her doctors’ appointments. Sometimes I’d see Victoria on her porch, smoking. On one occasion she knocked on my door and asked to borrow ketchup. Another time she wanted water.

“Don’t you have running water?” I’d asked, a bit stunned to see her on my porch, knowing how hard it was for her to walk.

“I do but it’s poison. I won’t drink it.”

“Mine’s just tap; same as yours.”

“No, mine is bad,” she said, pushing an empty juice jar into my hand.

One afternoon while I was weeding, she called out to me, beckoning me over with wave of her hand. I had no interest in hearing about her many illness, or her poison water, or flimflam husband who’d recently depleted her bank account and left her with almost nothing to live on. I just wanted to pull dandelions.

I crossed the street and went inside her house. I’d assumed it would be messy, dirty, disorganized. I was correct. As I stood in the center of a crowded living room, taking in the cheap furniture and large screen television she handed me a pair of silver metallic pants and a pile of old Cosmopolitan magazines.

“I thought maybe your daughter would wear these. I never wear them anymore.”

Even though I knew my daughter would rather sleep in a room full of spiders than be seen in public with them on, I thanked her and took the shiny pants and the magazines and bid her goodbye. Before I made it to the door she asked me if I’d mind helping her fill out the paperwork required to get a prescription for medical marijuana. She’d been sick she said—cancer and diabetes and some other list of ailments I’ve since forgotten—and her meds weren’t doing the job.

Two hours later I went back to the dandelions, happy with myself that I was able to help a troubled woman, albeit only a little.

Cheryl was a type-A personality who was at the top of her game; professionally-speaking. She and her husband and their two young children lived two doors south of us in a pretty red and pink house and the only real contact I had with her was a friendly wave as she walked by on her way home from work. What I didn’t know was that she was battling depression, and had been for some time. When she talked of killing herself her family had her committed to a local mental health center. After her release she seemed fine—ready to take on the challenges of applying for a new job with more power and responsibility. Regardless of her outward assurances, her sister came to stay with the family to keep a close watch. When Cheryl grabbed her yoga mat and headed off to a class, no one thought twice about it. What she actually did was go out and buy a gun. When her sister said she had to run out to the store to get some milk and would be back in a few minutes, Cheryl told her not to worry about her being in the house alone.

When her sister returned she found Cheryl in the basement, dead. She’d shot herself in the head.

The next day Victoria fell into a diabetic coma from which she would not wake. She was 25 years old.

Two women with such disparate lives gone in the course of 24 hours. Both of their deaths were senseless and avoidable: Victoria was too poor to receive the proper medications and oversight to keep her childhood diabetes in check. Cheryl outsmarted all those who loved her so that she could put an end to her own misery.

The landlord cleaned and repainted Victoria’s house and rented it to a young couple who sit now on the porch and drink beer. Instead of seeing Cheryl on her way home from work I now wave good morning to her two children as they walk to school in the morning. Two children whose mother shouldn’t have left them.

Who am I to judge? I do, though. I judge Victoria’s family who didn’t monitor her enough. She was a sick troubled woman who often forgot to give herself insulin. Why wasn’t someone there to remind her? If I’d known, maybe I could have set a timer and gone over to tell her to stop wading through old fashion magazines, and instead check her blood.

I judge Cheryl’s friends and family for not being more insistent that she take medication or seek better counseling or send her away for a longer stay at the rehab center.

No. I take it all back: I don’t judge them. Everyone makes their own choices. Everyone writes their own stories. Could anyone have really stopped either of my neighbors from dying? Could I pluck a sunflower seed from a flower, plant it, and expect it to blossom exactly as beautiful as the flower from which it came? Probably not. Things are as they should be. Such is the nature of the present. The time and space and moment that is; that can’t be taken away because then it would be fiction. We don’t live in fiction. We live in a world of sickness and sadness. Beauty and growth. It’s what you choose to take along on your path that will define the bounce in your step and grace in your heart.

Pick the light. Head toward it. Feel the glisten that is the now. The here. The gift.