I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the woman who lived in the house across the street. It occurred to me one day as I was reversing into my driveway. I’m not sure why it crossed my mind. Perhaps it was because it was the second time that week I’d seen a young woman, and not my neighbor, at the kitchen window. Or maybe it was because the previous week I saw her husband, not her, walking their dog.
That day the kitchen light wasn’t on. It was usually on, and her petite body usually framed the window. It seemed like she was always at that window. She was there — preparing breakfast for her family — whenever I went to the gym early in the mornings. In those wee hours of the morning, her presence there was comforting, and it made me feel safe on those dark, wet mornings when the air was still as my other neighbors in North Vancouver slept. And she was there when I returned from work in the evenings.
That day, she wasn’t.
That night, I asked my husband when he last saw her – the neighbor.
“You know, I can’t remember. Why?”
“She wasn’t at the kitchen window this evening, and I can’t remember the last time I saw her.”
Before falling asleep that night I found myself, again, trying to recall the last time I saw her. She didn’t work, so she was the only neighbor who had time. Time to stop by, smile, and talk about anything. She’d ask about my sons and school. And she always complimented me about our garden. Even from her balcony, she’d smile and wave. Yet I couldn’t remember when that stopped. And, because I no longer went to the gym early in the mornings, I couldn’t tell when I had last seen her at the kitchen window, fixing breakfast.
Later that week, I saw her son as he was getting out of his car. I waved and went across to their driveway.
“Hi,” I chirped. “Haven’t seen your mom in a while. How is she?”
“Ah!” he sighed and hesitated.
“Um …she passed!” Passed? The words echoed in my mind.
“Whatdoyoumean?” I said quickly as the words tumbled out as one. “She died.” “Your mother died?” It came out as a whisper. “How?”
“When?”“July.”“July?” I squinted.
“I didn’t notice anything different. I was away on holidays in August. But July? I was around in July. I was here every day in July. I didn’t see any unusual activity. I didn’t notice more cars from visitors. July? How could I have missed that?”
He said there were no extra cars, no visitors. They were expecting it. I listened, in a daze.
As he recounted her battle with cancer, my mind drifted. I remembered noticing someone on their balcony, during the spring, who I had (then) assumed was a relative undergoing chemotherapy. I had watched the bald-headed person taking slow, hesitant steps, like a toddler learning to walk. Each step was deliberate and painful. Months before, my husband and I had visited a dear friend, Mervel, in Toronto who was dying from cancer, so seeing the person on the balcony was reminiscent of our friend, Mervel, and I had stared empathetically. Yet, I had never even suspected the bald-headed person could have been my neighbor. Her son confirmed it had been her.
That was in May.
As he continued talking, I tried to remember what I could have been doing in May. But I couldn’t remember May. So I tried to remember July. That was easier. Every weekend in July, we were outside working on our home improvement projects. We had made the garden pristine. We had painted the columns and the fence in the backyard. We had also painted the deck. Then August rolled around, and our friend lost her battle with cancer. My husband and I flew out to Toronto for her funeral. We spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, missing her, talking about her, reflecting on our mortality.
Then September descended with its back-to-school craziness. Permission slips to sign. School supplies to buy. New teachers. Complaints about new teachers. New bed time schedules. Then it was October. Dark mornings. Dark nights. After-school activities. Halloween costumes. The months merged; the treadmill didn’t stop. Before I knew it, it was Christmas. Then the new year. Then February.
It was all a blur.
As we said goodbye, I repeated, “How could I have not noticed that she wasn’t around?”
He smiled apologetically and said kindly, “It’s okay. We’re all too busy.”