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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Grief and friendly neighbors

My arms bore the weight of an extra large Google Shopping Express box filled with tin cans and glass jars emptied of their contents as I wandered to the side of the house to our recycling bin. It was Monday night after all, and garbage trucks begin their weekly roll down our street each Tuesday morning before neighborhood sparrows being their morning chatter.

Our home is downslope from the row of houses along the side of our property. Our neighbors’ backyards line our side yard. Above my head to the west is our new(ish) neighbor’s deck. The family who lives there moved in last fall. And almost as soon as I heard voices from the home that had been empty the two previous years, Bay Area rainstorms kept everyone in their dry homes, and prevented us from connecting with each other since then.

Last night was different, though. It was probably 75 degrees as I plodded along trying to avoid tripping over children’s shoes or our makeshift downspout extenders on my way to the bins. The evening’s warm air enticed bodies from their homes and into their dry outdoor spaces. In this case, it was onto the deck above my head to the west.


bereaved mom
Riley heart helps me run
Going about my business, I could hear them talking to each other, talking to their children. But I didn’t look up. I just raised the bin lid and dumped the contents. Then I took the empty box back through the house and into the garage where it would wait to collect the next batch of emptied jars and tins and no-longer-wanted newspapers. Then I went back into the yard and along the house to drag the full bin to the street. Their voices punctuated my activity like a bass line, but I never looked toward them.

Once I’d gotten to the street, I heard my friendly husband, “Oh hello… nice to meet you…” and so on. He’d come out to help with the undesirable task of moving bins that smell of rotting food and dog poop. I busied myself at the curb, picking up squashed limes that had fallen from our tree waiting for the niceties to end. I was trapped. If I went back toward the house, I would be sucked into the conversation. As I fiddled with the limes and bits of plastic along the curb, I felt my limbs become stilted with tension. And then the line I knew was coming (and very much avoiding) slapped my ears.

“So how old are your boys?” she asked. She’d met two of them several weeks ago when their basketball went over the fence and they’d knocked on their door hoping to retrieve it from their backyard.

The ones that are living or the one that has died? I asked in my head, imagining how this conversation would have played out, had I chosen to be a part of it?

“One is 12 and the other is 10,” answered my husband who followed his reply up with the scripted question asking about their boys’ ages.

This friendly banter carried on for another minute or so before I realized I could avoid the side of the house and our neighbors by going through the unlocked front door.

I returned to the garage, found a new garbage bag for the kitchen bin and went back to my Monday evening tasks. As I scurried about, my husband appeared and leaned against the countertop. I looked toward him. “I’m just not ready to have that conversation yet,” I’d said.

“I know, that’s why you have me.” He eyed me with his compassion and reassurance, knowing that talking to our neighbors about our children is not innocent neighborly smalltalk.

“They probably think I’m a terribly rude person, not making eye contact or anything.” I glanced over at the picture of Riley on the counter next to him, beaming with pride before a first grade choir performance.

“It’s okay.”

I don’t know what’s okay. I do know that talking to people is filled with land mines. And for now, avoiding those land mines is the easier path, given that I have to be on this path in the first place.