I felt so trapped. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't even know if we were safe. I didn't want to be in the middle of it and would have wanted to take the kids and myself out of the situation if I could, but I didn't know what I'd see - or smell - if I walked out of my door and passed the apartment at the top of the stairs.
As I washed the baby's bottles, I looked out my kitchen window and saw the medical examiner removing a body from the building. Our neighbor. He had died in his home, days ago, and no one had known until the smell was bad enough that it couldn't have been anything else. Again, I'm really not trying to be graphic. It was all just so sad and so shocking. Every indication, including his recent behavior, how the police responded, and his family's reaction when they were finally allowed to enter the apartment and begin cleanup, is that our neighbor committed suicide.
Processing this has been difficult. At first, it's hard not to be selfish. I feel so sad for him. But the physical ramifications of his actions have affected all of the neighbors and his family in just a terribly graphic way. Our home didn't feel like our home for a couple of days after we realized what we had been smelling. It was hard to eat there. It was hard to sleep there. It was hard to feel joy and recognize beauty with the physical reminder of death and suffering. It was hard to know how to keep the three-year-old from asking too many questions about something that he noticed, too, when we usually encourage questions and love his information-gathering process.
My method of coping with difficult things is to try to understand. I want to imagine it, to piece it all together, and to figure out why he did this and what he was thinking in those last moments. I can't see any way of arriving where he did without intensely deep darkness and depression. I know there was a fall back into addiction, too. The crazy thing about alcohol abuse is that he could carry in his choice substance in large quantities, in broad daylight, and we felt powerless to do anything about it. I even heard his regular cab driver try to address it with him once. His fall back into addiction was not subtle. But it was legal, and we had no way to force him to slow down.
Trying to picture what happened, how he felt at those last moments, and what it still looks like across the hall took my breath away many times those first few days and left me struggling with the weight of his darkness. There were nights of trying to fight it away and yet feeling guilty that I wasn't trying to understand his burden. I have had to fight this temptation and realize that entering his darkness doesn't lessen it; it just hurts me. I will never understand; I will never be there; and I don't want to see the apartment across the hall or understand how they found him or what choices he made. Carrying this burden doesn't help him, but it does hurt me. Lying awake at night sweating with fear and anxiety does not change his situation for the better, and it makes it much harder to keep the joy and wholeness of our household. This burden is still too heavy and too dark for our little ones to share, and my diving into it does not help me to protect them.
Once the smell started fading, it became easier for me to start to shift my focus outside of myself. It's selfish that it took me so long, but it's what happened. At first I wrongly thought that selfishness would be trying to distance myself from the situation. I thought that caring meant immersing myself in what happened until I had it all figured out. Instead, the more I tried to understand, the more inwardly focused I became. Fear and anxiety does not lend well to putting others first. I've had to find distance.
It's not that I want to move on and forget this man. But I want to move past the horror and start grieving the person. I don't understand what happened in his mind in those last days, but I can look on the last two years and try to remember and appreciate who he was when he was healthier and in recovery. "Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow." (James 1:17) The joys, loves and talents in this man's life were good things - gifts from God.
Some of the flowers from the hallway window
When we moved in two years ago, this neighbor was much more himself, although still not whole. We saw glimpses of his love for beauty, his passion for art. His window overlooking the driveway was painted with a mural. The window in our shared hallway was always decorated with something relevant to the closest holiday or changing season. If there was nothing big to celebrate, he dug until he found something. He was creative, and he wanted to share that beauty with the people around him. His little garden in the backyard was full of ripe red tomatoes which he had grown and shared with neighbors. When we moved in, unfortunately, we saw the red tomatoes grow old and rot off the vine; and this summer, they were never re-planted. But there were hints that he had been fully there not long before, and that he had a love for beauty and nature.
This summer, we started noticing the alcohol coming back into his home. He'd been open about the fact that he was in recovery and had talked about his rehab program. It wasn't a secret that he'd been in some dark places and that it was such a positive thing for him to have a stable home, a job, and a support group to help him heal and recover. So seeing those 24-packs coming in with increasing frequency was painful- a definite red flag.
Then the beautiful hallway window started being updated less frequently and more lazily. The spring flowers were still there when he put up the beautiful bouquet of live flowers for Memorial Day. I eventually had to throw those out, because they were there far past their prime and seemed forgotten. The Independence Day flags went up while the paper flowers were still in the window. The candy box on the windowsill was never restocked and started to fill with old wrappers. And as fall approached and Halloween drew near, the old decorations gathered dust and the spiders moved in to the corners of the window. A red flag.
When we first moved in, he introduced himself and offered to share his grill in the backyard. So friendly and kind. But... The next week, he didn't remember having met me, much less his offer. He never really had much of a conversation with me, although I did greet him when I saw him. He'd mumble things that didn't really make sense in context. He was a little unstable. There was some concern that he had the potential to even be dangerous (not sure how to take it when the mail delivery person warns me about my neighbor). Josh had more successful conversations with him than I did. This is intentional; he tries to lead in connecting with our male neighbors and I try to lead in connecting with female neighbors. We always felt like we weren't getting through to him. We had conversations with each other, wondering how to reach him, wishing there was someone in his life to speak with authority and help him out of the darkness and the addiction. But we were never able to get through, and there was no indication that anyone else was, either. Red flag.
I promise I'm not just rambling, although partially I am still just processing everything that has been happening. It's hard to respond to suicide. My heart hurts for his family. I pray for peace and hope for them as they cope with this loss. I saw glimpses of the beautiful person this man used to be, and I hope with all of my heart that they are able to grieve that beautiful person with love and forgiveness. I hope they are able to heal.
There are two things I want to take away from this.
One: Have community. Community is SO IMPORTANT. I cannot overemphasize the value of a supportive and loving community. Don't know where to find one? If you're local, message me - I'd love to tell you about the love, support, and true community we have found in our church. I'm not just saying that to sell our church. Our community in our church is like family, and with most of our family long-distance, we have had to rely on them for so many things. They have come through for us over and over again. These are the people in my life who know who I want to be and how I want to live for the rest of my life. These are the people who have authority to speak into my life. If those red flags ever start popping up, these are the people who can stop me, check in with me, ask if I'm okay. These are people who have earned credibility in the past, who will be able to speak into my future. These are people who love Jesus, love me, and pray for me. I don't know if our neighbor had community anymore. I wish he had allowed us to be part of his community. I wonder if the darkness was already growing too thick to let others in by the time we moved in.
Two: Be community. Reach out to others. Ask your neighbors how they are. Be part of a small group of people where you know what their struggles are, where you can be real with each other. Let them see you - the real, authentic you, flaws and all - so that they can be real and authentic back. Love them through their flaws. We're all flawed. We all sin. If you've given each other authority to tackle those rough patches together, then help them to see those places where their own sin and darkness blinds them, so that, by God's grace, they can continue moving toward his beautiful, faithful, unchanging light.
Some people may not accept your outreached hand. Almost every one of the neighbors I've reached out to about this tragedy in our community acknowledged that they had known something was wrong in this neighbor's life, but that every time they'd tried to reach out, they'd been unable to get past a surface level conversation. I wish we could have helped him, but let me tell you - I'm so glad I can fall back on the peace that we'd been intentional, concerned, and prayerful about our neighbor. I'm not saying there wasn't more we could have done. There always is. We are not perfect. But I'm so glad I can honestly say that we cared and we tried. We'll continue trying to reach out and connect with our neighbors. Maybe we can have a real impact in their lives. I hope so.