WE WATCHED DAVID make his way slowly down the middle of the street, dragging his right leg, his right arm limp at his side. With his left hand, he reached forward with his cane and lurched after it. A plastic grocery bag hung from his left wrist. Step and drag, forward and pause, all effort and will, past our house, past Gia’s, then up his driveway, up the two concrete steps to his porch. He set down his bag on the bench, took out his keys, and let himself inside, his big orange tabby cat behind him. We saw him coming from what seemed like so far away. But it wasn’t the distance; it was the time. It took him so long.
This was in the spring of 2002, and Christine and I had just bought our first home—the home we live in now—in a quiet neighborhood in Albuquerque, young families in one-thousand-square-foot starter homes, elderly couples, widows and widowers who had lived here for years. Adeline, walking her dog, Lucky. Karl, whose wife was bedbound, walking his dog, also named Lucky. Like David, they walked by slowly each day at their regular times, morning and evening. We went out to say hello, introduce ourselves, and Christine had Oliver on her hip, his hair long and curly because we couldn’t bring ourselves to cut it yet. Morning and evening, we too walked the neighborhood, pushing Oliver in his baby jogger to the park, and neighbors now dear to us, and some we still don’t know, watched us coming and going.
David could say, “Oh, yes!” A few of his front teeth were missing. His gray hair was greasy and uncombed. His clothes were dirty, his cuffs and collars stained. He wore a thin, long-sleeved shirt, often with the buttons off track, a white tank top underneath. Red suspenders held up dark brown polyester pants. His right pant-leg was frayed and mud-splattered from dragging. He was too thin, and he smelled of urine. We told him we’d moved from Seattle. Christine was a nurse. I was a teacher. New jobs, new house, another baby coming, and David said, “Oh, man!” and he shook his head, and we all laughed.
He reached out his hand, which still held the cane, and Christine and I each shook it awkwardly, putting our hand over his leathery knuckles.
He started off again, and I said, “Wait. Let me help you. Let me take your bag.”
He turned his head but kept moving forward. “No, no, no.”
What had happened to David? Had he once had a family? Who had cared for him in the weeks and months after his stroke? How long ago had it been? How long had he been alone?
Christine is a quiet, kind listener to whom people often tell their life stories. But David couldn’t tell her his story. He only had a few words. From another neighbor, Christine learned that David had suffered his stroke more than twenty years ago, sometime in his forties. He’d been married, but his wife had left him. There hadn’t been any children.
One day Christine was driving when she saw David standing alone at the bus stop near Ace Hardware, his plastic bag dangling from his wrist. She pulled over and offered him a ride. Oliver was strapped in his car seat in the back.
“David looked at me like I was crazy,” Christine says. “He gave me his, No, no, no. But I insisted. He shook his head and waved his cane and his plastic bag went swinging around. I told him I wasn’t leaving without him, that he wasn’t the only stubborn one. He stared at me with those watery eyes. I helped him into the passenger seat. I couldn’t get him to wear his seat belt. He was very unhappy the whole way home.” Christine laughs as she tells me this now, nearly fifteen years later, a bright joyful laugh. “He was like a surly teenager. Not grateful.”
Christine never picked up David again. She understood that he prized independence more than anything. She and Oliver would see him at bus stops all over town. There’s David! She wouldn’t stop, but she would slow down and wave. The first time she did this after “the abduction,” David’s eyes got big and he started shaking his head, No, no, no, and Christine laughed and waved and kept driving.
David could hum—an eerie keening Christine never could identify but which ended in a rising crescendo and the loud, clear words, “God is good!”
“He couldn’t get to those words otherwise,” Christine says. “He hummed the song so he could tell me that.”
David limped past the house on his way up the street to the bus stop early every Sunday morning on his way to church. He could say, “God bless.”
“Beautiful,” he’d say, looking up at the sky, looking all around.
Sometimes there were groceries in David’s plastic bag, sometimes flowers in little pots. Christine didn’t know the names of the flowers, and so she asked to look at the little flags. Pansies. Vincas. Christine would see David coming and she would walk out to the end of our driveway and David would stop in the street and Oliver would hold onto her leg.
Where had he been? Smith’s?
Did they have the best plants?
David tried to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. He sighed and shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, and Christine said, “It’s okay, David.” The next day he showed her his newspaper flyer, all the best deals circled in red. David could say, “Cheap.” Christine has always been a good mimic, and when she tells me this now, she gives herself over completely to David’s slurred, loud speech. Real cheap.
David tried to give Christine flowers from his plastic bag. She wouldn’t accept, so he left them on our front porch in their little pots. Christine didn’t know how much sunlight they needed—and what about plant food?—and she was eight months pregnant and had a toddler and a writer husband, and our dog Rocky had just joined the family from the shelter, and she still worked twelve-hour shifts at the hospital on the weekends, so some of these flowers wilted and died.
Evan was born, and the boys got older. They were playing in the front yard, and they would shout, “David’s coming!” They could see him coming down the street. They were never scared of David. Of his limp, of his ragged clothes, of his smell, of his half-slack face and half-slack body. They knew him as he was—good and gentle—and they would run up the sidewalk to greet him, and his face would light up, and he would say, “Oh, yes!” and they walked on the sidewalk beside him as he limped down the street.
Sometimes David would say, “Come.” He wanted to show the boys his new flowers. They’d run inside and get Christine and they would all go down to David’s.
David had all kinds of flowers on his porch, and he had flowers in a weathered barrel in the front yard. But in the backyard there were plants and flowers everywhere. All in their cheap plastic pots, all watered by hand. Inside each of the pots were little figurines. Leprechauns, trolls, birds, squirrels, bears.
Christine says, “Oliver and Evan loved those little figurines. David and I would watch and the boys would take turns with the hose and water his flowers and play with those figurines. David would buy those little figurines and leave them on the porch, too. Little toys, green lollipops on Saint Patrick’s Day. Peeps on Easter. He gave them picture books about Jesus—the ones where Jesus is with the lambs and the children.”
Two could play at this game. Christine is known in the neighborhood for her chocolate chip cookies, which are big and floury, like biscuits or scones, but somehow not at all dry. Every time she made a batch—about once a week—she’d say to Oliver and Evan, “Let’s take some to David.” That’s what the boys learned. You make cookies. You take some to David.
Christine says, “So many people were uncomfortable around David. Waving hello but not knowing his name. Not talking to him. But in some ways, his stroke made our relationship easier. His fundamentalism—the evangelical stuff—I didn’t have to worry about listening to that. And I didn’t have to worry about failing at small talk. There were times when the boys would shout, ‘Mom, it’s David!’ and I didn’t feel like going out, and I didn’t. But most times I did. I looked forward to seeing him. He had a kind of resilience and hope that made me feel good about things.”
Christine and the boys would knock on the front door, and after a long while it opened. David was always surprised to have visitors. The TV was blaring, a preacher in a megachurch. The carpet was filthy, and the air was thick, musty, as if the windows hadn’t been opened in years. Christine says, “Every time, I had the strongest desire to clean everything from head to toe. But also, I didn’t want to go that far. I knew this was understandable. But still, I was disappointed in myself. There’s a part of me that still feels that if I was the kind of person I really wanted to be, we would have had David over for Thanksgiving. I gave it lots of thought, many times. But I was scared of setting a precedent, of being too involved.”
Christine pauses, looks up from her hands. We’re sitting at the kitchen table. The boys are asleep in bed. “I did know where to stop. But I was never comfortable with that. And that’s why I don’t like to think about David now. What he really needed was a daughter or a wife. I wasn’t willing to be that.”
David had framed pictures on the walls in the hallway, and once Christine tried to figure out who they were.
“He tried to tell me,” Christine says. “He wanted me to know who they were. There was a young boy in some of them. At first I thought he was David’s son.”
No. Oh, no.
“The little boy in the pictures was his nephew.”
To get to David’s backyard, sometimes Christine and the boys went with David around the side of the house, over the uneven sidewalk, past his garbage and recycling bins and through the gate. That was where Christine found him, in that narrow space between the house and the garbage bins. He had spent the night outside. The entire night calling out. Gia lived in the house between ours and David’s, and she didn’t know what she was hearing, but she heard something. Christine says, “It was still dark and Gia came and got me, and we went over together. David was on his back and he was so cold.”
He was moaning. He had a deep gash on his forehead, and his face was smeared with blood and dirt. He wanted Christine to help him up. But she didn’t know what had happened. Maybe he had broken his hip. She told him she needed to call 911.
“No, no, no.”
“David, I have to. You’re hurt.”
The paramedics came and put David on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
After the hospital, David went to a rehab facility, and Christine, Oliver, and Evan visited him there. They brought flowers. Christine doesn’t remember much about the visit. She remembers it was nice to leave. “No one likes places like that.”
When I ask Evan if he remembers visiting David at the rehab facility, he says no. Evan is in middle school now. He says, “I used to have a lot of memories about David. I really liked him.”
David’s big orange tabby cat roamed the neighborhood at all hours. We have only one bathroom, and at night before bed it is often my habit to take a leak on the tree in the backyard, and often there was David’s tabby sitting on our cinderblock wall, yellow eyes glowing out at me from the dark.
Christine insists that David’s tabby was gray, not orange, with black markings around its eyes. She says, “This was not that long ago. How could you not remember?” She says, “Boogie was a big fucking cat. Tough. A survivor. Dirty. You pet Boogie and your hand came away scummy. And Boogie was Gia’s cat, not David’s. But David fed it, and Boogie wanted to get away from Gia’s awful barking Chihuahuas. It’s not like David went to the shelter on the bus and came back with a cat. Boogie chose David.”
After David came back from the hospital, it was weeks before we saw him again, struggling up and down the street, pushing his cane. Later, we saw him in the passenger seat of his nephew’s truck, driving through the neighborhood, to and from the house they now shared.
The first time I saw David’s nephew, he was alone, walking from the front door to his truck parked in David’s driveway. He had dark hair, was short, and looked to be in his fifties. Then he reversed his truck so fast down the driveway that my whole body went electric with panic. I whirled around, looking for Oliver and Evan. I saw them digging in the dirt in the front yard, and not for the first or last time, I felt the animal compulsion to get them behind me, to put my body between them and the dangerous world. It took me a long time to calm down.
I told Oliver and Evan to be careful, to watch out for the nephew’s truck backing out of the driveway, to be wary and alert walking down the sidewalk to their friends’ houses, wary and alert walking Rocky around the block, wary and alert riding their bikes or scooters down the sidewalk. I taught them how the taillights of a car or truck went white when it was put in reverse. But they are boys, just children, and no one can be that wary and alert all the time, and I imagined the worst. Christine imagined it, too. The nephew backing up his truck just as— And then I shook the image from my mind.
David was sitting on the wooden bench on his front porch when I drove by. I waved. He didn’t wave back. It didn’t occur to me that I’d never seen him sitting on his bench before. I only thought this later. When I came back from the grocery store, David was still sitting there. Boogie was sitting beside him. I parked and went over. David was scowling.
I asked him how he was doing, was everything okay? He wouldn’t answer, wouldn’t meet my eyes. I asked a few more questions like this, but he still wouldn’t answer. Finally, I said, “David, let’s get you inside,” and I pulled at the screen door. It didn’t open. David didn’t look up, but he murmured, “Ohh.” He was furious. The screen door was latched shut by a hook on the inside.
“David, how long has this door been locked? How long have you been sitting here?”
“Ohh.” His eyes blazed. I had never seen him this way before.
“A long time, David?”
Then it came to me. “Is your nephew in there, David? He is, isn’t he?”
David was nodding his head.
“He locked you out.”
I pounded the side of my fist on the screen door. The door banged and rattled. Boogie flew off the porch, across the yard and across the street. I banged for a long time. I knew that if I yanked hard enough I could pull the hook and latch out of the door frame, and I was about to do this when the nephew opened the door. He stood in the dark opening in his boxer shorts, shirtless. He was rubbing his eyes. I didn’t know if he worked the night shift somewhere and had been sleeping, and I didn’t care. Even through the closed screen door, I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
I’d seen David’s nephew many times but hadn’t introduced myself. I said through my teeth, “You locked David out.”
“He locked himself out.”
“That’s not possible,” I said.
“He comes and goes. I’m not leaving the place open so anybody can just wander in.”
I wanted to say, He has a key. But you didn’t— I said, “You need to let him inside now.”
David’s nephew shook his head in disgust, but he unhooked the latch, opened the screen door, and said, “Okay, David.”
David stood and struggled inside.
Christine, Oliver, and Evan brought David a plate of cookies. His nephew answered the door. He let them in, shouted gruffly for David, and shuffled off down the hall. Old take-out food was on the counter. The sink was full of dishes. David came out of his room. He went to Christine and put his hand on her arm. She gave him a hug. The boys didn’t run through the house and out into the backyard. They stood close to their mom. Christine set the plate of cookies on the table, and they all went out to the backyard to water the flowers. Later, on the way home, Oliver, who was nine, said, “I didn’t like that. I don’t like going to David’s anymore.”
Not then, but around this time, Christine met David at the end of our driveway. She asked how he was and David leaned his cane against his body and put out his hand so that his palm was flat and shook it a little. Hmmm. So, so.
Christine said, “Are you okay?”
Christine said, “I’m worried that your nephew isn’t treating you well.”
David didn’t answer. She expected him to say, No, no, no. But he just looked away.
Oliver ran into the house shouting, “Dad! Dad! You have to come. You have to come right now!” He was ten years old. “It’s David. He fell. He’s hurt.”
Oliver had been walking over to his friend’s house after school. We ran out the door. Evan ran out, too. He was seven. We found David on his back in a small patch of snow and grass and weeds between his driveway and the fence. It was February and cold, and I could see my breath in the air, feel the blood rushing to my face, as I knelt down in the snow. David’s big black plastic garbage bin was toppled over on its side nearby. It was garbage day, and David had gone out sometime earlier to bring the bin back up the sloped driveway.
David was dazed. He didn’t seem to recognize me. He gripped my forearm and tried to pull himself to a sitting position but cried out in pain and lay back down. His grip was so strong. I asked him if he’d been there a long time, but he just moaned. He closed his eyes. I could see that he’d emptied his bladder. The crotch of his pants was dark and damp.
“What can I do, Dad?” Oliver said, his voice full of urgency and fear.
“What can we do?” Evan shouted.
I took a breath. I told David that we needed to get help. We needed to call an ambulance. He didn’t say anything. I don’t think he heard me. I didn’t have my cell phone. I was trying to figure out whether to leave the boys with David and run home to call 911 or to send Oliver. But then Christine was there. She had been walking Rocky and saw us from up the street and came running. Christine has lost track of how many times she’s run down a hallway pushing a screaming woman into the operating room for a crash C-section. She’s at her most calm when things are at their worst.
Christine listened to us tell her what we knew and then kneeled down and said, “David, it’s Christine.”
David opened his eyes.
Christine said, “I’m so sorry, David. We have to call 911.”
I had thought David would be too disoriented to understand, but his eyes came alive and he started shaking his head furiously, shouting, “No! No! No!” A deep, guttural, awful sound.
Christine said, “David, you can’t get up. You’re hurt.”
“No! No! No!”
I went up to the house and knocked on the screen door until the nephew came out. He walked down the driveway. The boys were sitting beside Christine in the snow. Evan had his hand on David’s leg.
The nephew said, “What the hell have you done this time, David?” He turned to me and said, “David’s an asshole. I keep telling him that he needs to be in a home, but he keeps saying no. Well, what’s going to happen now, David? Who’s going to clean you up this time? Not me.”
Christine said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The boys stared at the nephew.
Christine took out her cell phone and called 911.
The nephew went back inside the house.
Christine says, “I remember that we waited with David for the ambulance, and he kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’ and then he would be quiet for a few moments, and then he’d try to sit up but couldn’t, and he’d groan in pain. Finally the ambulance arrived, and a fire truck also, and we moved away from David while the paramedics examined him. I was standing at the end of the driveway, and one of the fireman started interviewing me. He asked me where I found David and how he fell. And because of the way I answered, he assumed that I took care of David, and he asked me more questions. ‘How old is he? Does he have any allergies to medications? Besides his stroke, any other medical problems? Is he diabetic?’ And I said I didn’t know. I said, ‘I’m just his neighbor.’”
The fireman asked Christine if David lived alone, and she said no. The fireman went up to the door and interviewed David’s nephew through the screen.
The paramedics brought out a stretcher, lowered it to the ground, transferred David onto it, and raised it up. David had been quiet this whole time, but when they were wheeling him past us he tried to sit up again, grimacing in pain.
Christine went to him and said, “I’m so sorry, David.”
Now, nearly five years later, Christine says, “I was so sorry for what had happened, for what was about to happen. I knew what had to happen. But I was also apologizing for not being the person who would take care of him.”
David took Christine’s hand and kissed it. Then he lay back and closed his eyes.
We were skiing in Colorado when Christine’s cell phone rang. We had just gotten off the lift without one of us crashing or causing anyone else to crash. On the phone was a social worker. She had been to the hospital to interview David and had interviewed the nephew at the house. Christine talked with her for maybe five minutes while the boys and I looked out onto beautiful blue skies, snow-capped mountains in every direction.
David was moved to a nursing home. Eight months later, he died.
When I think now about the ten years that we knew David, when my children were little and I was sleep deprived and chronically over-caffeinated, when David was part of the daily fabric of our lives, I want to say that time passed by like a blur. It went by so fast. But of course it did not. It took David so long to walk by our house, so long that it was easy to stop whatever I was doing and walk down the driveway and say hello. Time passed in this same way those months when David lived in a nursing home somewhere less than five miles away. There had been plenty of time. I had thought to visit David, and so had Christine. We have not yet found a way to forgive ourselves.
Christine says, “It’s simple. We were just too busy to take the time for him, to bother, to care enough. There was always something else to do. And I didn’t want to ask the nephew where he was. And I didn’t want to hear the staff at the nursing home tell me no one was visiting David. I told myself that I’d said goodbye to him in the driveway. That I hated long goodbyes. But when I stop and really imagine him there, how lonely he must have been, that’s when it’s clear. I should have gone at least once. That would have made him happy. But I didn’t. I didn’t go to his funeral. I don’t even know if he had one.”
One night not long after David died, Christine came in the front door after her twelve-hour shift at the hospital. Her eyes were narrowed and her jaw set. I thought that something must have gone wrong at work, something tragic, which happens sometimes. She flung down her bag and said, “Boogie is sitting on the bench on David’s porch.”
We pass David’s house every day. It’s empty now. The nephew has gone. For months and months the house was for sale and then eventually it passed into foreclosure. The yard forlorn, the empty planters on the front porch hanging down from their hooks. The weathered barrel in the front yard full of only dirt.
When I focus on the day David was taken away in the ambulance, I feel as he must have felt then. Heartsick. Heartbroken. But as time passes, what comes to mind more often is the memory of him walking slowly down the street, stopping at our driveway, and Oliver and Evan, who are now sixteen and thirteen but who were then just little boys, running to greet him. “Oh, yes.” We cherished David. I owe him this elegy. I miss him, and I miss the friendship that he and Christine shared, because it was beautiful, because it was how friendships with our neighbors should be.
Sometimes David would take Christine’s hand and he’d kiss it and say, “God bless.” Once, he said to Christine, “God?”
“Well, David,” she said. “I don’t really know what I think. I guess I believe there is a God. Yes.”
“Yes, ma’am. Oh, yes.”
Christine tried to change the subject. But David shook his head and looked up through the canopy of trees overhanging the street in front of our house and he said, “Soon. Soon.”
“At first, I was kind of scared,” Christine says. “Was he saying that he was going to die soon? Or was he talking about the second coming? So I said, ‘I know, David. Life is short. It goes by so fast. I’m sure you know that better than I do.’
“He was worried about me, not being a Christian. Worried about my soul. I know he was.”
Christine says, “One of these times, I said, ‘David, I have a favor to ask you. If you move on from this life before I do, I want you to watch after my boys.’
“I asked him. I said, ‘Will you watch over them?’ He said he would. He knew exactly what I was asking him.”