Last week my neighbor died in his house across the street from mine. I didn’t know Mr. Marts. I knew he was particular about his lawn, which numerous times won yard of the month – whose weathered yard sign and neighborhood elitism I passively coveted. His yard was illuminated by a halo of buzzing blinding light from the street pole, ensuring added attention to his perfectly manicured lawn, especially at night. I knew he must have enjoyed the sound of running water by the miniature watermill sitting on his porch, which pumps out just enough water to question its actual purpose. I also knew he was dying of some sort of cancer. My housemates told me he had been moved to his home under hospice care a few months earlier and my thoughts and prayers were with him. But as time happens and egocentrism battles on, I sort of forgot about Mr. Marts in our quiet neighborhood in my busy day-to-day. My excuse for being busy is that I am a twenty-something. We twenty-somethings are too busy trying to project our dark hole of an existence as a hip and full lifestyle, for pete’s sake. Plus I was traveling all summer for work and herding interns around and having just moved to the state, trying to find a dentist, trying to find the new way home without getting lost, and keeping up with friends scattered all over the country. So forgive me Mr. Marts, that I forgot you were dying slowly every day I drove up, parked, and peeled my sweaty legs off the leather car seats in a rage of questioning the actual purpose of my car’s air conditioning in 115 degree heat.
Clearly, things get blown out of proportion with the aid of poor prioritizing and carelessness, but I have also found life can have a way of slowing down just enough to shove your head in your own armpit of self centeredness. I caught my first whiff when I drove down our drive, clogged with cars that seemed to be magnetized to Mr. Mart’s flawless lawn and it remained so for almost a week, cars swapping out parking spaces with one another. “He’s getting close.” my housemate commented one evening over dinner. I was quiet, thinking about what he might look like or be feeling. The next afternoon I arrived home there were people milling about the yard on cell phones. Surely he had died. A presumed relative was sitting next to the eeking watermill with her dog, who was consumed by the mill’s workflow. The dog looked away and barked when I got out of my car but was hushed by the woman, as I waved. I instantly felt shameful. You don’t wave to someone who is watching a person die. I scurried inside.
That night I sat in the common room working on a few projects with Star Wars rooting for me in the background, walking past the window more often than usual to peek across the lawn, as if a relative would be hammering a sign beside the mailbox that would indicate by way of percentage how close he was to death. I prayed a feeble prayer, the kind of prayer that gives the realization how distant you’ve put yourself from real things. Real things like life and death and loving on people and caring about the worthwhile. Give Mr. Marts peace. Help his wife be strong. Be near to them. I sputtered out awkwardly, the twinge of remorse so near, it started to ache a little. As I finished, the garage door opened and I knew my housemates were home after an insanely busy day, just coming from a hospital visit, nonetheless. But i didn’t hear it close and I didn’t hear the back door open. I stood up to look out the window to catch them walking across the street, and being invited into Mr. Marts home by a very sad looking woman. My heart began to thud with guilt. You should have cared and it’s too late. Mr. Marts is probably dead and you didn’t know how to care. In all honesty, I was confused about how to acknowledge that something was clearly wrong across the road but my lifestyle had gotten so obese, I was too out of shape to remember that all it took was, “I’m sorry and I care”. He died two hours later and it’s such an strange thing to think about. His body lay there for at least some amount of time before it was transported while I was just sitting across the road watching Star Wars, working out a very acute flaw.
Shortly after, my coworkers’ four year old son was over at the house, curled up on my lap watching the Olympics on television. Adults in the kitchen turned the conversation to poor Mrs. Marts across the street. He turned to me during a commercial break and asked nonchalantly, “Why did Mr. Marts die?” I patted his back “Because he was very sick.” My attention floated back to the television, uneasy and hopeful to avoid having a conversation about death with him. Micah is only four; I am twenty-three, and I have no desire to steer him in the wrong direction. I am not a parent, nor am I one of those people who pretend to be. I take no delight in delivering time out or wiping a potty trained kid’s butt, or making sure vegetables are eaten. I enjoy children simply on a friendship level. There are many good things about having a friend that is four years old. He still laughs at potty humor with me, and he thinks I’m magnificent simply because I am ‘tall’ or that I can imitate Darth Vadar or because I love grapes too. But these conversations of explaining early on these intense topics kind of make me curl inside. Micah would have none of it. he grabbed my cheeks with his icy little hands and pressed his forehead against mine, spying at me out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah but whyyyyy did he die?” as if reiterating the question would somehow probe a different answer. I laughed forcibly, “Well, everyone has to die.” He stared at me for a while searching my face for a hint of jest; I felt cruel withholding the trite comfort a child deserves, but paralyzed with the difficult and unanswerable realities he will uncover the remainder of his lifetime. He then looked at the ground and mumbled, “But I don’t want to.”
Both his parents and I are Christians and so I spoke with him about eternal life in the afterlife and how it is important to know and love God; Even though I knew that sometimes even the strongest Christians can still fear the passage of death -and to a four year old, it seemed to negate any words of comfort anyway. I confess too that i feel at times like Marcus Mumford penned, that ‘death is just so full and man so small’. While it doesn’t eliminate hope, death has a way of rattling the skeletal cage of the soul. And although uncomfortable, I am grateful for this past week. I think I tend to pad myself from the inevitable and trudge on sort of whisking it aside like a fly. It’s good to be friends with a four year old and have them ask those questions to remind me that I only have today and to ask what have I have done that holds any sort of weight in eternity. This has been on my mind a lot: in fact, twice a day to be exact. Since Mr. Marts passing, his lawn hasn’t looked quite as sharp and his water mill has gone awry. Every time I get in and out of my car i can hear it whining in sort of a rotating manner. Like someone’s crying.