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.

A hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person. His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring. Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art. Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent. As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, etc. he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly. I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.  Here is a video of him tapping out his song ‘Heroes’ using a bottle cap on his shoe, raising money for physically challenged children at the Bridge School concert, 1996.

reaching out

My neighbour accepted a delivery for me when I was out.  When I went to collect it, I was shocked at her appearance- she had lost a lot of weight and looked very gaunt. Not sure of anything, I mumbled thanks and left.  But it bothered me that I hadn’t asked.  She was a bubbly young French lady, with two small children and her appearance and behaviour were totally out of character.

Then a week later, while shopping, I met another neighbour and asked her if she knew anything.  This lady told me that the French lady had cancer which had spread.  It all made sense to me now- why I always saw her mother ferrying the children to school, not her; and her appearance.  I felt deeply ashamed that I hadn’t said anything to her, offered to help even.   But even then, I did not do anything.  But my lack of action kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

Couple of days ago, I put a book for her and one for her children and a card through her letter box.  The book I sent was a book that I read when I was ill with a stroke.  That very evening, I received an email from her-

Thank you very much for your kind words and your prayers, it means a lot to me.

Ella was delighted with the book and I will read the other one with great care.

As you know, when sickness takes over your life, you see it differently and dream of normal things and I can’t wait to put this ordeal behind me. I am so lucky to have a supportive family who take good care of me and the children.

My treatment is going well but I spend most of the time in bed as I go through chimio every 2 weeks for 3 days… 14 done, 9 to go ! My kids keep me strong.

Thank you again for your kindness and I trust all is well.

I was touched that she had taken the time to thank me despite everything- a sign of a great person.  I write this post not to proclaim how great I am but perhaps to say that how stupid I had been.  As my other neighbour said me, ‘You don’t need to know the technicalities of someone’s illness but reaching out is enough- it shows you care.’  Secondly, I learnt that you need to reach out as soon as you can.  Life can go by too soon and you miss opportunities to show kindness and experience it.  You miss chances to be part of the human family.