Terry Ratner RN, BS, MFA - nurse, writer, educator - click to return home
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Across The Street

The man in the house across the street is dying. I began to notice it two years ago when he suddenly stopped coming around to do chores such as raking, fixing electrical outlets that weren’t in working order, painting rotted trim, and planting flowers in practical places. No, he wasn’t a handyman, just someone who had time on their hands and enjoyed visiting with neighbors.

After a couple of weeks, I noticed the following mishaps: grocery bags standing in the gape of the front door for hours, and the window cat who never went out, soon scratching in everyone’s yard. Next, his steaming Buick was jacked on a mash of shrubbery, while his significant other’s voice rang out with exasperation and fear, “Frank? Frank? What’s wrong with you?”

He began to study his feet as he walked, and watched his steps grow smaller. Eventually, he had to rely on a cane and that soon gave way to a walker.

I assumed all this was the onset of old age, or of senility—the nerves tangled inside the skull like the knot of a root-bound plant. But one day when I was out watering, he told me that on his usual walk home from the grocery store a month ago, he experienced dizziness and blacked out for a few minutes. One week later, he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. “It’s difficult for me to believe the diagnosis. I used to be an athlete. . . ”

Then every day the elderly man in a blue car took him away and brought him back hours later. The distance between the car and the house seemed interminable to me, watching Frank, who was now always too unsure, even with the walker, to step just an inch, and the old man who must have loved him, reassuring him in the soft shuffling sounds of German. Now the man in the blue car pulls up to the house and goes inside and doesn’t come out until late at night.

Of course, I can’t say for sure that Frank is dying, maybe I should just say that his health has obviously grown worse. Who can say at what point dying begins? Was he dying the day he ran over the bushes? Or the day the cat traveled the world for the first time? Or did it start before then, before any noticeable symptoms appeared? Perhaps he was already failing the day he walked over to my front door, his hips cocked to one side like a kid’s as he paused to chat with me, and to give me a painting I had always admired. Perhaps even then with the breeze between us and his smile as easy to look at as the painting he was parting with, he was dying.

And what about me? Is there a vantage point from a neighbor’s window, where my descent can be witnessed? Would a neighbor’s hindsight pinpoint my demise at the unremarkable instant I once turned off the water to catch the phone? If I could stand outside myself enough to see the spectral film uncurling in the air behind me, could I change the scene, fasten my seat belt, take more vitamins and miraculously sidestep the siege?

But if it’s already too late, if my number’s up and death has begun to grow inside me like a root-bound silence, and I soon can’t stand or walk even an inch without someone at my side, will there be someone who loves me, come to take me out into the world for a ride, talking in a language I understand?