The Gift of Sympathy

It was close to midnight when there was a knock on the door. Years ago, that would have been cause for alarm. But now, after countless moments of neighbors needing one other at odd times of the day, the sound of a night knock is less about alarm and everything about connection. 

When I opened the door, there he sat on my stoop: my neighbor, the gardener extraordinaire. Part Buddhist, part agnostic, part abolitionist, full anarchist. Up until this moment, all of our interactions, all of our stories have been full of light and laughter: gardening tips, favorite music, and discovering new things about each other. He truly is one of my favorite people. He owns this wicked three-wheeled, bedazzled, decked out pedal bike that he gives neighborhood kids rides on. He has half a dozen cats while also feeding all of the alley cats. His yard is a wonderland for both the new and experienced botanist. 

While we have been to each other’s homes and spent hours together in the community garden, never has it been in the middle of the night. I knew immediately why he was there sitting on my stoop. His back was to me and I saw a hole near the shoulder of his flannel shirt; the smoke from his cigarette swirled in the wind up to the sky. The weight of sorrow was obvious as I sank down and sat next to him. I had heard the day before about the death of his son—his adult autistic son. His son had been at his grandparents’ house arguing about going to the psychiatric hospital when he was shot and killed by the police. 

I could see his hands shaking. I could smell the whiskey and the weed (his choice of medicine). I could see the salt stains on his stubbled cheeks. No words were spoken as I joined him in the ritual of shedding tears for life that has been taken. We leaned in on each other, our heads resting against one another. We allowed the darkness to do its job: to hide the pain but also somehow to call it forward and give it a home. A safe place to land, you might say. After the tears came the words, and they poured out like they had been locked up for years. There was anger. Hurt. Outrage. Questions. Pain. Sadness. Feelings of being lost. He wanted to go to sleep never to wake in a world where his son doesn’t exist. At the same time, sleep was evasive and never seemed to come. 

While the stars shifted position in the sky, we sat. He talked. I listened. We grabbed our hands together to ground the moment and we let the questions go unanswered. After a few hours, he admitted that he didn’t tell anyone he left; he needed out of his house and he knew he could come to my stoop next to the community garden and find peace. So, I walked him back home, delivering him to his family and friends who had gathered to mourn. He turned to me before crossing the threshold and gave me a small, sad smile. He tipped his head to me and whispered, “Thank you.”

Because who else besides your neighbor do you have in the middle of the night when your grief is all-consuming? The people who live close to you can get you home safely and sit with you when there are no other answers. Do you have a neighbor like that? Can you be that neighbor to someone else?

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