Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Death in the Neighborhood

When my ex-wife M and I first bought the house I still live in, on what was back then a quiet and remote road. We met Cora Crown, the owner, an aging white-haired lady with a predilection for green shag rugs, who took us for a quick tour of the backyard.  There wasn’t much to see: a two-car garage, which appealed to me, and an undeveloped lot behind, which appealed to my ex. The place was near a good school for M’s two kids, not too far from a highway that would take us to our workplace in Washington, and, most important, affordable.

The search for a home had been arduous. M was Asian and there were some things she would not countenance. Weeping willows were one, since they brought bad luck. Houses built on a corner lot would never have a proper spiritual aura. No running streams too close, and, most important, no recent death on the property.

It looked like a done deal until Cora Crown, standing in the middle of the backyard, pointed to a spot a few feet away and said, “That’s where Fred, my boyfriend, dropped dead four years ago. Coronary. Big one. Fell like a stone…”

It took days to persuade M that, since the death had not properly occurred in the house, Fred’s spirit was nowhere near and the dwelling would not be haunted. We bought, moved in, tore out the green carpeting and made a home.

Eventually, M and I divorced and I bought out her share of the house.  About a month later, Maria, the matriarchal Armenian neighbor on my right, died. That house was home to Maria and her three daughters with whom I had become friends. Maria spoke rudimentary French as the family had lived in Beirut before moving to the United States, and she delighted in offering me strong, bitter coffee and small, hard cookies. She missed the city, she said, but liked her garden and the large elm trees in the back.

Maria died at home after a long and undefined illness. I was a pallbearer at her funeral and remember thinking the coffin should have been heavier. Eventually the sisters moved. One married, another left the country, and the third went to New York to work for the United Nations.

Two years later, Jim a retired civil engineer who lived on the other side of me, died as well. Jim was a smoker, and even the diagnosis of lung cancer couldn’t get him to quit. He left his house to his Russian bride of three years, and she sold it to a young couple whose main interest, it seems, is digging up the front yard for no apparent reason and revving the engine of their monster Dodge truck. They’re still there.

A year after Jim’s passing, the oldest son of the people living across the street died of a heroin overdose. They were from Iran, the wife a classic beauty, the husband a cigar-smoking Washington bureaucrat of indeterminate power. The man walked a small, noisy dog twice a day; in the afternoon, the wife entertained other women who drove late model BMWs and Mercedes. That a child from a good family in an overwhelmingly white suburban neighborhood could die in such a manner shocked the other neighbors. The Iranian family was gone from the house in less than a week and a little time later four young people, roommates, took it over.  They rarely mowed the lawn or trimmed the hedges, and within months the place took on a dissolute appearance with too many cars and garbage cans out front. The roommates, too, would move, and in four years the house across the street saw a Korean family, a single, older man who constantly tinkered with his car, and a young Chinese couple with three kids.  I never really got to know any of them.

This preoccupation with death in the neighborhood comes, I think, from fears that my cancer may have returned after a brief respite. Recent tests showed abnormal cells (see 4/14 blog) and tomorrow there is a scan, followed by more scoping by and encounters with a doctor whom I like less and less. I’m afraid.

More than likely, this is what many friends call the wreckage of the future.  Still, it makes me feel fragile and far too aware that even in the better neighborhoods, life is a terminal disease. You always die from it…

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