Behind closed doors

Last week was half term. It was also the week that my neighbour left her flat, I think, forever.  She is 41, with a loving family and two children- aged 18 months and 6 years and dying of cancer. I first came across her, bubbly bouncy and very French.  I used to talk to her, waiting for the lift or seeing her somewhere in the building.  I remember her being pregnant with her second child, pushing the young baby, and then being a working mother.  Then she sort of disappeared.  I was busy and sometimes I passed by her door, thinking perhaps she’d left but I never knocked on her door to say hello.

Then one day, a courier left a parcel for me with her. When I came back home, I knocked on her door to get the parcel.  The person who opened the door was no longer the bubbly, bouncy woman I had known- a thin, tired woman appeared, barely struggling to get to the door. But again, I didn’t ask.  Bizarrely I am ashamed to say, I even thought, perhaps she is on a diet or something (not that she was fat anyway).  I thanked her and left with my parcel.  But something didn’t feel right. So a couple of days later, I emailed her to ask her if she was okay.  Then she told me that she had cancer.  Then over the next two years, I began to email her, sending her little gifts or books, things for her children and asking her mother about her.  I knew she had an aggressive form of cancer that was spreading fast, so I didn’t knock on her door as I didn’t want her to come to the door.  Over the two years, it was like a yo-yo, sometimes she looked good and positive, sometimes thin and tired.  I continued to pray for her.  I wanted her to win over this terrible disease and I never doubted that she would.

Then two weeks ago, I got this email-

“I went to the oncologist last Friday with my husband and was told that they could no longer offer any treatment. My last chemo did not work and will cause more suffering at this stage to continue with the current or new treatment. I have therefore decided to spend some time in France with my family for now.”

I emailed her to say, I’d like to take a photo with her before she left but she said, “when I come back”. I realised then that she didn’t want her photo taken and also that she was saying good bye.  And that all memories don’t need photos.  So I emailed her a sketch I made many years ago during of my time working and living in France-

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She thanked me and that was it.  Last week, when I saw the furniture and removals van, I stopped to ask her husband who was at the door.  He said she was resting and they were leaving soon.  I wished him well and asked to be in touch.  I don’t think I will see her again.  But her door, soon with new occupants, will remind me, why we must knock on doors and ask how people are.  Ask when things look not quite right, help and encourage people- you never know how short time you have with them.

Community relations

 

About ten days ago, I went to a funeral of a neighbour. I had designed the ‘Order of service’ booklet which she had left to the last minute. Through doing this, I had learnt about the remarkable life of her husband.  I learnt about her life and her children.  From knowing nothing about her, apart from greeting her when I met her, I learnt so much about another person.  I felt uplifted by this experience.

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Unknown to me, she had mentioned to many of other neighbours who had come to give their condolences that I had helped her so much.  So couple of days ago, when I needed help to move furniture and sort out some house repairs, I was very grateful to have the help of neighbours.  My little act of helping someone had ignited the spirit of help across the block.  I regret now that it took a funeral for me to get to know someone and help them but also grateful for the realisation that all it takes for a community spirit to begin is to knock on people’s doors and ask them if they need help.  I am now helping another neighbour who is seriously ill.  So much of our modern lives are taken up with living just for ourselves or family.  Our human family is much bigger.  This is our privilege and honour to be part of this human family.