You just can't ignore the old lady next door.
I can't help it. Every year when May hits I become obsessed with aging. I find myself a permanent place on the pity pot and I just stay put. I'm turning 63 this week, and it's the end of the world as I know it. Margaret, our staunchly independent neighbor, an elderly widow of 85—a fact she says I should keep to myself because people make so many judgements about age–doesn't obsess over things like aging or waste her time with trivialities out of her control, she just gets on with it. "We only have the one life", she'll say. "We ought to be grateful for it while we're here."
Margaret's husband passed away over twenty five years ago. It's not as though she doesn't think of him—"We used to go to the dances together" she tells me "All I have to do is put on our music and it's like he's right here with me"—but she refuses to mope around living in the past.
She's organized, efficient, thorough. With twenty years on me, her mind is the proverbial steel trap while mine is as leaky as the upstairs faucet I keep forgetting to have repaired. There's not a doddering bone in her body although her body does have that characteristic bend of osteoporosis to it. I'll see her from a distance and instinctively straighten up, force my shoulders back. We've been neighbors for about three years, ever since she and her little dog moved into our mammoth complex a couple of months after we did, when she sold her nearby Los Angeles home for three quarters of of a million dollars. Now she lives in a neat-as-a-pin one bedroom apartment right next door. She got rid of everything, all the unnecessary thingamajigs and furniture most of us stockpile; the occasional tables, the fussy curio cabinets, étagères and ornamental shelves where people stash all their doodads, doohickeys and mementos.
There are no adult children to come by and visit once a week—she and her husband weren't able to have kids—so there's no one to fuss over her. You get the feeling she likes it that way. The rest of her family all live in England and while she's lived in Los Angeles for half a century—she came over as a British nanny in 1963, a real life Mary Poppins—she doesn't drive. She waves off my offers to take her grocery shopping so sincerely that I've stopped asking. Instead she prefers to push her wheeled shopping basket the three quarters of a mile to the market. Often, she tells me, she meets a friend she used to work with at the old May Company—Esther, or perhaps it's Estelle—for lunch.
In the early morning—6:30, 7am—I hear her sweeping the leaves off the walk in front of our apartments, hushing her little dog who watches from the screen door. "Shhh Dilly. No bark. No bark." I feel a twinge of guilt knowing Margaret is sweeping in front of our place too, before I roll over and go back to sleep. Later, my husband will bring me a cup of coffee in bed whether it's my birthday or not and I remember, like Margaret to be grateful. Later when I come downstairs for my second cup of coffee and open the kitchen blinds, sometimes I can tell Margaret has not only swept the pavement, she's also watered my plants.
We share a front garden, divided by the climbing vine Margaret helped me pick out at the nursery. She gave me some of the large Mexican beach pebbles that she brought with her from her old house, pushing a box full of them in her shopping basket along the sidewalk. We both used the rocks, charcoal grey, smooth and shiny to cover the ground, before we put down our potted plants. She favors succulents on her half of the garden while I prefer pink geraniums; the only flowers hardy enough to survive my irregular care. To be honest, there are times when I avoid going outside to water the plants or pluck the dead leaves or feed the flowers with Miracle Grow because I'm afraid Margaret will hear me and come outside to chat. It's hard to get away without spending at least a half hour chatting.
Margaret has only accepted a ride from me twice before today. The first time was the day she was out taking Dilly for her morning walk and a neighbor's dog, a large pit bull mix, got out—broke right through the screen door of his owner's apartment—and came charging down the block, knocking Margaret down onto the sidewalk and taking a chunk out of Dilly. Dilly is the size of a handbag dog, if Margaret was the type to carry her dog in a purse. A man out jogging helped get the pit bull under control while Margaret, terrified for her 'little girl' got to her feet. I slept right through Margaret's screaming. Later she knocked on my door and when I opened it there she was, standing there with Dilly in her arms, the both of them trembling. The bite looked pretty deep so I drove her and Dilly to the vet right away but because of the severity of the wound, the vet sent us off to the pet hospital, STAT. Margaret ended up with a $1400 vet bill the dog's owner had to pay. I wanted Margaret to get herself checked out at the doctor's too, but she waved me off, insisting she was fine.
The other time I gave her a ride to LAX. No big deal. I literally dropped her at the curb.
The only reason Margaret asks me for a ride now is that she has to have a colonoscopy, and the surgical center won't release her without someone there to pick her up. It's standard procedure.
"You don't need to take me. I only need you to pick me up."
"Don't be silly!" I'm happy I can pay her back for all the sweeping. "Of course, I'll take you there too. That way I'll know where to pick you up."
"It's just up at Cedars-Sinai."
"I'm taking you."
My husband offers to drive us there but I wave him off irritably. Just how old and dithery does he think I am?
It's a quick drive down Third Street, a right turn on George Burns and another right on Gracie Allen. Easy. Two hours later when go back to pick her up, Margaret is waiting in a wheel chair on the sidewalk, a nurse waiting with her. That's also standard procedure for a colonoscopy. I jump out to help her into the car but the nurse beats me to it.
"How'd it go?" I ask, waiting for a Margaret-like answer.
"Fine" I expect to hear but what I hear instead is "Not too good."
I truly can barely believe my ears. "What?"
"It's not good news." She buckles up while I check the rearview mirror.
"What do you mean?"
"I have colon cancer."
Her face betrays nothing. She is calm, stoic.
"I told the doctor I won't do chemo. He said I might want to consider talking it over with somebody. I told him there's no reason for me to do that. I make my own decisions."
I drive down busy Third Street, past the Beverly Center, unsure what to say beyond "I'm so sorry." She's not the kind that wants a lot of fuss.
"I'm going to go home and have a cup of tea but then I'm going to call the Neptune society, get it all prepaid. I want to make sure everything's in order."
"But you don't have to do that today—it's not as though—"
"I asked him how long I have left." She laughed. I felt the color drain from my face. "It could be five years."
"Oh!" I brighten up, like we just won the lottery.
"But, it could be a week. It could be tomorrow."
She wants to be prepared. Margaret doesn't want to be like our other neighbor, Lorena, the woman I found lost on the corner, the neighbor who was feeding rats in her apartment. After social services moved Lorena out, it took twelve dumpsters to get rid of her rodent-infested belongings. Margaret doesn't want anyone to have to deal with anything. Not that she would ever have twelve dumpsters full of anything.
When tomorrow comes I hear Margaret sweeping in the front and I pop out in my bathrobe, coffee in hand.
"Hey Margaret!" I sing-song, aiming for casual cheeriness. "How's it going?"
"My rectum is a little sore but apart from that I don't feel a thing. No pain. Nothing."
Today I find myself watering my flowers, picking off the deadheads. I'm almost lost in my own green world when Margaret says hello, startling me.
"The doctor called." He said he would when he had a better look at the test results. "He thinks he can remove it."
"Oh my God, that's great!" I give her a good strong hug.
"He wants me to have a scan—"
"I'll take you."
"It's just up on Robertson." That's only a couple of miles away, normally she'd insist on taking the bus.
"I'd like to take you." I repeat it for emphasis.
"Well," she puts her hands in her pockets and turns back to her apartment where Dilly is barking inside. "I appreciate it."
"No problem," I tell her, gathering up my half-full bag of dead leaves and shriveled pink geraniums.
"I better get back to feed Dilly. My little girl is waiting for her dinner."
She shuffles down the sidewalk to her place, her back bent.
"That's really great news, Margaret" I call out before she goes in.
Margaret laughs and I realize that really great news is overstating it.
"I know what you mean" she says. "It's nice to know someone's looking out for you."