On grief and neighbors
Two weeks ago, I was scheming about moving. I was tired of trying to fit seven people into three bedrooms, tired of the fact that issues with our back yard mean that the kids won’t play out there for long periods of time, tired of scorpions stinging my children in the face. Also, a few weeks ago my seven-year-old son and a boy his age who lives nearby had been involved in what they thought were humorous pranks on our neighbors, but turned out to cause serious property damage. After the humiliating experience of having to knock on doors, introduce ourselves, apologize, and write checks, I was ready to get out of here. We can’t exactly afford to run out and get a bigger house, but I was determined to make something work. I picked up flyers from local houses that had just gone on the market, and trolled real estate websites, hoping against hope to find a spectacularly good deal.
Then, a week ago last Saturday, I was driving home from my mom’s house at 8:45 at night after dropping the kids off for a special spend-the-night with her and a visiting aunt. Her house is within the same connected network of subdivisions that we’re in, and so I was winding through neighborhood streets. Shortly after I turned onto the main drive of our own subdivision, I saw a motorcycle zoom past me, headed the opposite direction. I had just come around a corner, and when I looked at his trajectory and considered how the street curved, my heart sunk. He’s not going to make it, I thought. I hit the brakes and looked in my rear-view mirror. The darkness erupted in a spray of sparks, and I heard a terrible crash.
I turned the car around as I dialed 911. I parked by the accident site and jumped out to check on the rider. I could never have been prepared for the horror of what I would see. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that it was like something you’d see in a war zone. One officer commented that it was one of the worst scenes he’d come across in 20 years. I had trouble breathing, and immediately started going into a state of shock.
After I got off the phone, there was a surreal silence. I was standing next to this horrendous scene, with no authorities having yet arrived. It was just me and this deceased young man, with a couple of other stunned witnesses across the street. For a brief moment, I was pulled out of my shock and given a specific, very clear message: I was supposed to be there, on behalf of this kid’s mother. I was her envoy, there to look after him, to pray for him, and to send him off on to his journey in the next life. A feeling of calm, as thick and palpable as a fog, enshrouded the scene, and I was given the words to say a short prayer for him and his family — specifically, for his mother.
Police sirens broke the silence, and within minutes the street was filled with police, paramedics, neighbors, all walking around in the glare of headlights and flashing red and blue lights. I fell back into my state of shock, and was told by officers to go home.
At my house, I sat with my husband on our back porch and told him everything that happened. As I spoke, I felt a connection with the victim’s mother. “I feel like I know her,” I said. It was an irrational thought: The drive on which the accident happened was one of the main arteries into a large network of neighborhoods that contains hundreds of houses. I don’t know that many people around here. Also, the victim could have been here to visit friends for a Saturday night get-together; he may not have lived anywhere nearby. And yet I felt this sense of connection so strongly that I ran out the front door and stood in the middle of the road and looked down the street toward the house of my neighbor friend who has a teenage son. Her house was dark, and so I went inside.
The next morning after Mass, I got the call. We did know him. It was Cameron, the gregarious 21-year-old son of my neighbor a couple of doors down. When I was standing in the road the night before, I was turned the wrong direction; if I had turned around, I would have seen his mother’s house bustling with grief-stricken visitors, and I would have known.
As more details came out in the following days, it seemed that everyone on our street was involved in this tragedy in some way. Cameron had stopped by one neighbor’s house just minutes before the accident. Another neighbor was the first person he’d shown his brand new motorcycle to. Another neighbor had gone with him when he bought it. I was the first person to find him. Another neighbor was just arriving back from a night out when I came home from the scene, and cried with me as I told her what happened. Other neighbors had been outside because of all the sirens, and were with his mother when the police arrived to deliver the news. Still others were good friends of his.
All last week, I spent most of my time with the people on my street. I wasn’t online at all, and directed all of my energy to interacting with the people whose lives play out just yards away from mine. We stopped and hugged one another on the way to the mailbox, stood and cried on the sidewalks, sometimes right in the middle of the street. When we gathered to walk to the candlelight vigil at the accident site, the first person to greet me was one of the women whose property my son and his friend had damaged. The last time I had seen her I was standing on her doorstep, humiliated and chagrined, thinking that we’d probably never speak again. She walked up to me with tears in her eyes and asked if I was okay, we embraced, we cried, and we walked to the candlelight vigil together.
The night of the funeral a bunch of us gathered outside, sitting on the curb and talking until past 1 AM. We toasted to Cameron, we prayed, we laughed those raw and intense laughs that don’t quite cover over the grief, we cried, and we asked ourselves why we never got to know each other before now. The next day another person approached my house with the biggest bouquet of flowers I have ever seen. I could tell it was a neighbor since there was no car in front of my house, but couldn’t see the person’s face because of the size of this tremendous gift. I opened the door to see Cameron’s mother, accompanied by his sister and step-father. In an act of graciousness almost too shocking to comprehend, she had come by to give me this gift as a token of thanks.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the day before the accident, my husband and I stumbled across an idea for creating some more space in our house that took a lot of pressure off of our overcrowding situation. I had been so fixated on my plans that I had never paused to consider whether it was God’s plan for us to move on from this place. That time may come one day, but this week it was as clear to me as few things have ever been clear to me in my life, that that time is not now. I knew that God sends us to just the right time period in human history, that he sends us our families, but I don’t think that it clicked until this past week that he sends us our neighbors too.
As I talked with Cameron’s family, his mother and I in tears as we spoke, I noticed that his sister was sitting in the same place in my living room that she sat almost four years ago to the day, that afternoon when I first met her and my other little friends. And I had the same feeling that moment last week that I had those years before: this is exactly where I need to be.