Honor Thy Neighbor
Though only in his mid 50s, the next door neighbor lives in this Florida retirement community because he won the house in a divorce settlement. He starts the day by walking the dog, then goes to the gym to work on his pecs. In the locker room he shaves his head and trims his mustache and beard before heading off to work in a Mazda Miata. When the black car returns at the end of the day, his bearded figure emerges for 15 minutes of soaking up the sun.
Noah gardens in a black T-shirt, black gym shorts and black gloves, though never on a Saturday. He has a mezuzah on his front door and on Shabbos he doesn’t lift anything, not even his phone. When he learned my parents were Jewish and didn’t have a mezuzah, he gave them one as a gift. He made sure they hung it properly – what did my parents know from hanging a mezuzah.
An empty nester, Noah would stop by and accept the offer of a cocktail. He’d stay and have a refill and confide in my mother.
Sometimes he’d gossip in an intimate way about the neighbors who squabbled over how each other’s trash was put out. Put your trash out in a bag with no can, or a few hours too early, and you might as well be a Hezbollah guerrilla.
With my mother, Noah talked about his strained relations: His parents, ex wife and new husband, a series of ex girlfriends, various neighbors, his son. He’d driven halfway to his daughter’s college graduation and then decided it wasn’t worth it – having to spend time with his ex and her new family – and informed his daughter he would give her an iPad instead, which would be much more useful than his presence. She accepted with grace.
Every year at Hanukkah, he told my mother, he sends each of his children a menorah so they won’t have the excuse of not being able to find the one he’d sent the year before. He told his daughter she shouldn’t even think about sending him Hanukkah presents. One Hanukkah, his daughter sent him a note for each night, saying how much she appreciated him.
When my father became terminally ill and bedridden, Noah came to visit every day. He sat and talked with my father. He tried to convince my father to talk to a rabbi, but my father told Noah he wasn’t religious, and Noah let it go. My parents looked forward to his visits – he had more compassion to offer than a rabbi.
When my father died, Noah didn’t come to the memorial service – he was avoiding his exes. As we were cleaning up, he dropped in for a drink. We offered him the unopened trays of leftovers, but he declined because they weren’t Kosher.
Shortly after my father died, my mother’s cancer returned. She was mourning, learning to live as a single woman at age 85, and battling ovarian cancer. The world had leapt forward in technology and she couldn’t cope: her telephone bill, her cable TV, her banking. Just when it all seemed too much, the electric garage door opener snapped. She called a service man who told her he would replace the whole system for $2,500. She told him to go ahead.
Noah, who had taken to checking in on my mother, found someone on Angie’s List who came and fixed it for $105. My mother was so grateful, she wanted to do something to thank him. He told her she didn’t have to thank him, it was his mitzvah.
My mother always liked to put more into the mitzvah bank than she took out, so she ordered a shipment of Omaha Steaks. I didn’t think this was a good idea, because the meat was unlikely to be Kosher, but when my mother got an idea there was no stopping her.
Sure enough it wasn’t Kosher and Noah was put off by the gesture. He put the box of frozen meat on my mother’s porch. He reiterated that he had done a mitzvah – it was something he needed to do for his god – and didn’t need repayment. My mother distributed the parcels to other neighbors who were happy to partake of the verboten meat.
One day Noah called and said “OK, if you want to do something for me, you can hem my pants, because I know you like sewing.” My mother did indeed like sewing, although her machine had been gathering dust. Noah brought over his pants and my mother cut and sewed the hems. When Noah came to pick up his pants he found they were two inches too short. My mother, head hung low, took them back and reattached what she could.
When my mother underwent chemotherapy and lost her hair, her appetite and her energy, Noah came and visited. He brought his dog, Ashar, a Shih Tzu. My mother enjoyed the visits and petting Ashar.
My mother told Noah to help himself to a drink from the liquor cabinet. My mother did not drink, but whenever my brother came to visit he’d stock good scotch, tequila, vodka. She noted that Noah filled a tall glass with whatever he took, and then refilled a few times. He’d stay and talk for hours.
“He must be very lonely,” my mother would tell me. “But I like Ashar.”
When my mother decided to go off chemotherapy and entered hospice care, and I came to stay and take care of her, Noah called, texted, or came by once a day. He listened attentively as I recounted a day of medical visits and updates to my mother’s condition. If he didn’t come by, my mother asked “Where’s Noah?”
In her final week, she lay in bed, practically comatose. My mother could no longer talk, she could barely nod her head, slept most of the time, and occasionally nibbled on ice chips. Friends and family were calling, wanting to visit, wanting to talk. She wanted no visitors, could not talk on the phone – not even to her grandchildren. We’d put the phone to her ear and let the grandchildren say “I love you.”
“Grandma loves you too, even though she can’t say it now,” I’d tell them.
Then Noah called and asked if he could visit with Ashar. My mother nodded. Noah came and sat on the edge of the bed with Ashar on his lap. My mother reached out to pet the top of his fluffy head. “Ashar,” she said, the first word she’d uttered all week. Then, looking up at Noah, “Have you eaten? Do you want something to drink?”
When we were cleaning out my mother’s house, Noah didn’t want anything. Then he changed his mind. “I’ll take the leather loveseat and club chair.” It’s where he and my mother sat during their long chats. He said he would arrange for someone to come and carry them to his house because it was Shabbos.
We told him we had bottles of Lagavulin, Antica vermouth and Compari; would he like them? We brought them to his house in a box.
There were others who had shepherded my parents through their final year. How do you repay someone for offering solace, friendship, and errands to your parents? We invited them to walk through and take what was meaningful. They came, they talked about all they had done for my parents. I listened, I hugged.
The next morning there was a text from Noah. He’d decided he didn’t want the leather loveseat and club chair after all. We found the box of liquor returned to our porch. “I will never forget your parents. I don’t need any of their things to remind me of them,” he said.
As we pulled away from the house, knowing we’d never come back, we watched Noah, in his black T-shirt and shorts, sunning on his patio, Ashar by his side. We waved. He didn’t wave back. It was Saturday.
Ilene Dube's writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Philadelphia Public Media, Atticus Review, Princeton Magazine, Sculpture Magazine, U.S. 1 Newspaper, Kelsey Review and elsewhere.