Moral Ambiguity

The Next Family

By: Julie Gamberg

My next-door neighbor has terminal brain cancer. When I hear him coughing, which is, intermittently, twenty-four hours a day, I imagine many a touching independent or foreign film in which two urban apartment neighbors who have never really met come together over something serious and profound and both of their lives are changed forever while a young child learns the values of compassion and overcoming social barriers to care for those in need. But instead, when we see each other in the hall or–cringe– in the elevator, it is incredibly awkward.

I should say, he has never actually told me he is dying of brain cancer. I learned it through someone else living in the building, and then from his girlfriend as she was moving out because she “can’t handle it,” she told me. I also want to say he has always been very reserved, at least to me. Once, when my toddler wandered out of my apartment and into theirs in a never before or since seen moment of both doors being open at once, I went to get her and found him and his girlfriend in an intimate embrace right inside the door. Their faces looked pained and deeply sad. He shot me a look that was hard to read, but it seemed to be a combination of annoyed, angry, and embarrassed, underlined with a polite butt-the-fuck-out. I took my daughter, mumbled an apology, and went back inside. This was the week before his girlfriend left, so hindsight puts such a lump in my throat at having witnessed what must have been a devastatingly difficult moment for them both.

When I think of the movie version of what could be, however, I imagine that my neighbor witnessing budding new life next door – a pregnancy, a birth, a little baby becoming a toddler –would be both difficult and somehow redemptive. That I would bring casseroles, and offer rides to the hospital and he would play with my daughter and derive some comfort from that. Maybe he would tell us something he’s never told anyone else, and I would encourage him to try something he’s always dreamed of. He would give my child a small stone of special significance from some far-away place that she would treasure forever. Yet when I actually see him, I fear my daughter and I are an annoyance. That the loud message of life going on, of new life coming to take the place of the lives which are gone, is a painful sight, and that if he had his druthers, he would not be dying, a middle-aged black man, in a one-bedroom apartment, next door to a single white mom and her baby.

I feel such pains over this alienation and isolation. Over our urban condition. I would like some way to be there for him that doesn’t fill me and him with such awkwardness that we are both, literally, shuffling a bit. I was in my same apartment when I went into labor, alone, and it was an extremely fast and painful labor. I was screaming uncontrollably and in between screams, my first and foremost wish was that no one, no stranger who doesn’t even know my name, who will undoubtedly say and do the most very wrong things, that no one from the building, would come to my door. So I understand what he might be feeling. That I might be the most wrong possible person to bring casseroles, to offer trips to the hospital. And I also want to say, he is not alone. He has family and friends that come and visit him. I think one might be a grown child. I occasionally hear an “I love you,” as someone is leaving. I do not want to say, “I’d probably be in the way anyway,” as an excuse. Yet I fear that might be the case. That for him to share such intimacy, such heartache, with a stranger who he would have to continue to see every day would be incredibly painful. I wonder and wonder about this now especially, because it’s not just me. I’m modeling all the time for my child how to be in the world. I dread the day that my neighbor will no longer be there. That ambulances will come in the night, or that his family will escort him out, or that they will find him there. There is a moral reckoning that I don’t want to save for that day. I want to do it now. I want to make conscious choices about how I behave because I want to create, as much as I am able, the world that looks like the one I want for my child. Yet as much as I imagine myself reaching out, as much as I’m the type of person who would reach out, somehow I always stop short.

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