H arrived home about 5:30, greeted our neighbor, Beth, from across the street, as she went to get something from her husband Bill’s truck. Herb and I sat down on the couch and began reviewing a tense workday. A police car, another, a fire engine, an ambulance arrived at the doorstep. Beth came out of the house at a slow run with her head in her hands. Her daughters came out too. Heads in hands. Hands over their mouths. Steve, who is planning to marry Beth and Bill’s daughter in October, at the house, came out from the back. I think he walked a ways down the street beside the purpling rhododendrons, but he sort of blended in with all the men that kept spilling out of the cars parked at the curb.
The firemen disappeared around the back of the house. The paramedics disappeared around the back of the house. The cops disappeared around the back of the house. Then they walked in the front door, and out again onto the sidewalk. They seemed both aimless and purposeful at the same time. One took his raincoat out of the trunk of a police car. The paramedics weren't at the back of the house for long. I wanted them to go back in. I wanted to see the equipment in their hands, or at least carried on a different shoulder. I wanted to see their shirts wrinkled. Two of them came out scuffing their feet in the puddles of rain, as though they were trying to clean something off the soles of their shoes. It's odd what you see when your attention is so focused. Everything seemed to be in slow motion.
I have talked for as long as I have had breath about neighbors. About our beloved Vermont community. But there are communities and neighbors elsewhere as well. And Phyllis and her daughter Patty who live next door to us, came out on the street; Lori who lives on the other side of us was already there. I noticed how her long gray hair was lovely, the sides pulled back in a little curling ponytail. There were people I didn't know. We milled about, and watched. There was, of course, nothing to be done. Lori reviewed the fire that had burned down the tiny house across the street ten years ago. Phyllis shook her head slowly from side to side. The last time I saw her, she had told me she was praying for my mother. She held her hands together as if in prayer. Everyone's arms were crossed as though otherwise, they wouldn't know what to do with them. There wasn't anything for our hands to do. I think Herb dug his hands into the pockets of his orange coat.
Herb said it was good that he had driven up to the house before the array of vehicles at the door. If he'd seen that array as he was driving in, he would have imagined something still closer. He imagined it yesterday when he couldn't reach me by phone, and got calls from two other friends who hadn't been able to reach me. He raced back to the house from work, expecting to find me in some state that wasn't amenable to care...or only to care of a sort that none of us want to contemplate.
Across the street, the paramedics and firemen were leaving. The policeman with the raincoat brought out a roll of yellow tape. We all know that tape by seeing it strung on fence posts and waving in a dirty breeze. I never expected to see it go up. Not here. Not now.
It had been a few days since I saw our neighbor Bill replacing the window in his house. We waved. It was on Easter Sunday that I spoke with him about having locked my keys inside the apartment. He was off in his truck to get some groceries for an Easter meal. Some time between those two visits, I told him that we would welcome him for a visit to Vermont. "Say hello for me, to every tree. Every tree."
Bill was the heart of the neighborhood. Bill could be relied on for repairs and a friendly word. Bill moved his parked truck to make room for my car, when the snow was piled higher than we could throw it. In Boston, that is an act of pure chivalry.
I didn’t know Bill well. I don’t know his last name. I know his dog who never much liked me, and she let me know that, with the bravado of a Boston Terrier. She was hit by a car when they were walking recently, and now she is limping. I knew his daughter’s dog, Jack, who was adopted from a local pound a year or two ago. Jack is gregarious, and a lot like Bill.
There aren't any big messages here. Our friend Ursula says that brilliant writing is useful, not just beautiful. I can think of nothing useful in a man of barely 50 alive as I sat on a couch facing his house... and then gone, as I sat on the couch facing his house. Except that it makes me remember how lucky I am. And it makes me hold the ones I love close.
The San Francisco columnist Mark Morford wrote recently about the importance of giving thanks for all the things that go right in a rather twisted world.
Be cynical if you want. Be jaded and sneery and think the world is a razor blade of anger and pain, just waiting to slash you across the heart. This is your choice.
But the fact is, a thousand things go right for you every day. From the moment you wake up, the universe aligns in countless miraculous ways to make your life happen fluidly, effortlessly, incredibly. Your heart is working, your systems function, you do not instantly collapse, lose a limb or spontaneously combust. Amazing.
The car starts. The elevator works. Your legs transport you rather beautifully, hither and yon. The coffee is hot. The food placed before you is all kinds of stunning in how it connects you to the world. There's sunlight. Your eyes receive that light and create everything in existence. Also, trees! Nice....
You gotta give thanks. Not just for the big things, but for everything. All the time. Like breath. ...You can even whisper it under your breath, every time you notice something working right, no matter how seemingly mundane. The stapler worked. Your bed was warm. Your lover responded to your touch. The dog still likes you. Cool. Thank you.
Herb went outside. It is impossible to ignore when the cops have closed off the street and there is yellow tape on the fence. He came back in. We stood around trying to find something to do with our hands, and saying thank you for each breath..
Rest in peace Bill. The trees will miss you, but I will say hello.