Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Death and Mowing

My next door neighbor died last month. I hardly knew him. In fact, I think the only interaction I had with him was when I was out buying shoes and he recognized me. He said, "I'm your neighbor. The one with the crazy wife."

I had more interactions with the "crazy wife." She's always doing yard work. Even at night, in the dark. When I first moved in two years ago, she said that she and her husband were separating and she had a place in the country. I never could quite figure out what the deal was with that, because she was still around all the time, doing yard work. I sometimes got the impression she desperately wanted to work on my yard, since I'm so lax about weeds & stuff. I let things grow. I think that drove her crazy, and one time I suspect she poured bleach over my stone bed to kill weeds growing out of it.

Not my neighbor

Anyway, a few months ago she mentioned to me in passing that her husband was really sick. I said I was sorry to hear that, and the conversation ended there, like many of our awkward conversations. Then last month there was a notice for a funeral showing left in my mailbox. I didn't recognize the name and there was no postage on it. The showing was already past, so I walked over to my neighbor, who was out in her yard and asked if this was her husband. She said yes and started crying. He had just lost his job a few months before, and soon after was diagnosed with cancer, and died a matter of weeks after that. It was all very sudden and she was terribly shaken. She asked me for a hug.

I felt terrible and I said I was really really sorry and to let me know if there was anything I could do.

But other than giving her that hug, I didn't know what I could do.

The only thing I could think to say was, "I could mow your lawn."

Not me

My neighbor has a really big beautiful lawn.

Not my neigbhor's lawn

It borders a part of the street that curves, so the lawn makes a big curving arc along the street, like Trivial Pursuit piece. It's a fun lawn to mow. And mowing the lawn, like doing laundry or vacuuming, is one of those easy chores I enjoy doing. I like walking outside, getting exercise, making these neat tidy geometric lines, the smell of cut grass. So mowing her lawn was an easy way I could contribute.

The next time I mowed my lawn, about a week later, I went over to her house to see if this was a good time to mow hers. Before I knocked on her door, I heard wailing from inside the house. Like actual literal wailing. Someone moaning "oohhhhh!" in a heartbroken, distraught voice. I wasn't sure what to do, but I knocked anyway. She came to the door and said, "Sorry, you caught me at a bad time." I said it was okay and asked if I could mow her lawn. She said yes and thank you.

I don't know what kind of relationship she had with her husband. If they were separated, reconciling, working on it, or what. But clearly his death had shaken her. And other than mowing her lawn, I didn't know what I could do. I didn't think I could be there for her emotionally. I hardly know her. And, frankly, I'm not the kind of guy who can provide that kind of support to someone I don't know.

So I mowed her lawn. It was the least I could do.


Last week I mowed my lawn again and saw that her lawn could use it, too. But I didn't see her around her yard, and I was apprehensive about mowing her lawn without asking her first. It was 10:00 in the morning, and no one answered the doorbell when I rang.

I'm not one of those people who does people favors before I have their permission (or know for a fact it's something they would like.) Sometimes a "favor" can do more harm than good. For example, I used to work in a library where the circulation clerk would automatically renew my materials for me. I know she meant well, but I like knowing when my stuff is due. It reminds me of the things I have out, and nudges me to return stuff I'm not going to finish. So I thanked her for renewing my items, but asked if she could let me do it from now on.

Another example: Whenever I see a car in a parking lot with its lights left on, I'm reluctant to go and turn the lights off myself. I know there are people who would do this, and I wish I were that brave. But I worry about approaching a car that's not mine. I worry someone might think I'm breaking into it. I worry that maybe it's automatic lights that will turn off in a minute, or maybe the person intentionally left them on for some reason.

In short, I don't like to make assumptions.

So when my neighbor was not around at 10:00 on a Friday morning, I wasn't sure if I should go ahead and mow her lawn or not. Since I'd already done it once and she seemed thankful, I decided to go for it. I mowed the lawn. When I saw her later in the day, I found out that she'd been sleeping. Oops. She was very appreciative, and didn't say that I'd woken her up, but I still wondered if I should have gone ahead and done it without checking with her first.


I'm not sure what the point of this post is, other than to illustrate my philosophy of contribution. (And my compulsory liberal/Catholic guilt.) We all have different talents, abilities, and comfort zones. I feel like the best way I can help my grieving neighbor is to mow her lawn, a chore that's not much of a burden for me.

It's like how I am the Friend Who Helps People Move. I love the process of moving and experiencing that with other people, so whenever a friend or acquaintance puts out a call for moving help, I'm all over it. It's a tiny way I can contribute to the world.

I'm not looking for a medal or karmic rewards or even a pat on the back. I'm just trying to figure out what's the right thing to do in awkward neighborly situations.


asplenia said...

You're such a kind guy. What you're doing is perfect. Someday she will be able to tell you so. Right now she probably can barely breathe -- even the loss of a shitty relationship can be devastating. It made me feel warm to read your post, you're awesome.

Tim said...

Thanks, asplenia. I genuinely was not looking for praise. Maybe just understanding. But if mowing her lawn and writing about it made at least one person feel warm, then it was worth it. :)