Nosy Neighbor

Stephanie was rather quiet, by nature, as am I. We had few acquaintances, not much of a social life except for each other, and we weren't looking to expand our tiny circle of friends. We tried to be neighborly with our neighbors, of course, but our notion of a "good neighbor" was simply someone who'd leave us alone, wouldn't make much noise, and wouldn't otherwise make him- or herself a nuisance.
By that standard, in the three cities where we lived our apartment buildings were mostly filled with good neighbors, but there have been exceptions. In San Francisco, we had an upstairs neighbor who seemed to host a party three or four nights every week, loud and late. In Kansas City, we had a neighbor down the hall who wouldn't stop pestering us about when we were going to have children. (Spoiler alert: Never.) And in Madison, we had the Nosy Neighbor.
He is, I would guesstimate, in his mid-60s — he has thinning, grey hair, and a craggy face that's seen better days. He's always in good spirits, always wants to chat in the hallway, or on the street. So what's annoying about that? Let me repeat: He's always in good spirits, always wants to chat in the hallway, or on the street.
There are times when it's ordinary and human to chat with the other humans. But every time you see other humans is not the appropriate time to chat. More emphatically, there are limits to the topics of said chatting. From the day we moved in to this apartment building, Nosy Neighbor was omnipresent in the hallway, in the mail lobby, and on the sidewalk, and he always wanted to ask questions.
He never introduced himself or asked our names, like normal people might do. He never started a conversation with an ordinary line like, "Nice day today, eh?" or "How are you doing?" No, he always began with inquiries we considered intrusive, like, "Where are you going?" Or, "What are you two doing today?"
He pedals his bicycle everywhere he goes, so it was not uncommon for Nosy Neighbor to appear out of nowhere when Steph and I were walking, shopping, or running errands. Always he had questions. Even a mile from home, he might emerge from the shadows in any corner and start peppering us with inquiries — asked in a friendly tone of voice, but still it made us uncomfortable.
When Steph and I were new to the building and we were trying to get along with this neighbor, I answered his questions a few times. I don't remember what he asked about, but I remember regretting that I had answered. You don't want to encourage this guy to talk more, to ask more questions. He had a real knack for making us uncomfortable. Maybe "knack" isn't the right word. It's more like, he had the intent of making us uncomfortable.
Once, when we came in to the lobby of our apartment building, he was on the stairway to the second floor, and he simply watched us. Didn't say anything. We wouldn't have known he was there, but I accidentally dropped something, turned around to pick it up, and noticed him standing on the steps above us, watching us. It was as if he was conducting surveillance — and he was, in essence. From chatting with a few of our normal neighbors, we ascertained that Nosy Neighbor is a retired cop. 
He spends his summers in Madison, and winters in Florida — so we could go months without seeing him, and then, just as we were hoping he'd moved away or died, he'd ride past us on his bicycle, and wave, and brake, and start asking questions we didn't want to answer. We decided that he had never been a detective — he was too clumsy and overbearing with his questions — but that as a cop, he'd always wanted to be a detective. So now, in his retirement, he was "detecting."
When he asked questions, our rule was to continue walking and evade answering, because you didn't want to loiter with Nosy Neighbor — he'd never let you leave. Once, when he asked where we were going, I said, "Shopping." When we returned an hour or an hour and a half later, he said, "So it takes you seventy-four minutes to go shopping." And then he wanted to know where we'd shopped, and he commented on the groceries in our bags.
Is this creepy yet? We thought so. And as creepy as he was when Steph and I were together, he was creepier when Steph was alone. She told me two stories of her solo interactions with Nosy Neighbor.
Once, when she was returning from an errand somewhere, she stopped in the front vestibule to check the mailbox, and he came up behind her, soundlessly, as she was sorting the bills from the junk mail. He tapped her shoulder and asked, "Did you get anything interesting?" and Steph was scared spitless, as she hadn't seen or heard him, hadn't known he was tiptoeing up behind her. She jumped, and then she said something like, "Please don’t sneak up on me like that. You startled me." He apologized, sounded sincere, and then asked again whether she'd gotten anything interesting in the mail.
The event that brought it to an end came one afternoon, when Steph walked to the local mega-chain drug store to buy some sundries. It's about four blocks from our apartment, an easy distance in the days when Steph could walk. On her way back, three blocks from home and carrying a Walgreens bag, she saw Nosy Neighbor peddling down the street on his bike, but he didn't wave, stop, and chat like he usually did. Instead he turned a corner out of Stephanie's sight, and she was relieved. Half a block later, though, she saw him again, leaning against his parked bike, watching her from a distance. There was nothing else he could've been looking at; she was the only person on the sidewalk. She turned the corner and continued walking toward our apartment, and he came up from behind her, and screeched his bicycle to a halt on a driveway, directly in front of her.
"You went to Walgreens, eh? Do you always walk to Walgreens?"
"No. Sometimes I roller-skate." She sidestepped his bicycle and crossed the street. Stephanie was always willing to take her share of crap from people, but when she'd reached her limit, you'd better back away — and Nosy Neighbor didn't back away. Half a block from home, he pedaled across the street, and again blocked her with his bicycle.
"I'm just trying to be friendly," he said.
"Friendly, eh? What's your name?"
He answered, and Steph later told me his name, but I've since forgotten it.
"Well, thank you for telling me your name," she said. "It'll make for a more thorough police report."
"Police report? What have I done to report?"
"You've been stalking me for blocks. Actually, you've been stalking me for years. I am telling you now, once and only once, to leave me alone."
True to her word, Steph went straight to the phone when she got home, and called the police. A cop came to our apartment, and asked Stephanie a lot of questions, and asked me a few. Nothing came of it, as no real crime had occurred, but she wanted Nosy Neighbor's name on the official record.
He waved at me in the hallway a few days later, and he was as chatty and nosy as ever. Despite having spoken with Stephanie and I, together, many times, this wanna-be detective hadn't pieced together the evidence that we were a couple. He asked me some none-of-his-business question, and I answered, "I'm the husband of the woman you've been stalking. If you want to enjoy your retirement, you will leave her alone. And leave me alone as well."
But that was just icing on a cake Stephanie had baked. Mission accomplished, thanks to her. She filed the police report at least six or seven years before she died, and over all that time we saw Nosy Neighbor frequently, every summer. I'm sure he was watching us as we came and went, probably taking notes and compiling a dossier. He must have wondered why Stephanie went from walking easily to walking slowly to getting around in a wheelchair. For all I know, he tailed us to a doctor's appointment to find out. But he never asked us. He never again spoke a word to either of us, in all the years after Steph called the cops.
I saw him today, which is why I'm telling the story. It's one of the sure signs of spring — birds chirp, the weather warms, and Nosy Neighbor returns from Florida. I was taking out the recycling, and he was between the back door and the dumpster, asking questions of another neighbor. In the old days he would've said something to me — something unsettling, something weird — as I walked by with my trash can. But today, like every day since Steph called the cops, he didn't have anything to say to her, or me.

Why isn't she here?

The last thing Stephanie and I said most nights was, "I love you" or "Good night," which meant the same thing. "Good night, Doug. I love you." "I love you too, Steph. Sweet dreams." It seems totally trite to type it, but spoken aloud between us, it was a warm, reassuring way to end the day. It meant a lot to us. It meant more than I understood while she was alive.
For the first month or so after Stephanie's death, I never said good night. There was only the cat to say it to, and anyway, I was barely and rarely sleeping. I'm sleeping better lately, sometimes even without pills. There's still no-one to say good night to, and there never will be, and yet I've started saying it again. "Good night, Stephanie. I love you." It's sad and silly but soothing, saying such words as I click off the lights and pull up the blanket.
* * * * * * * * * *
Not always or even frequently, but sometimes I still dream that Stephanie is alive and well and at home.
In my dream last night, we were talking about what to have for dinner, and I volunteered to cook, and she volunteered for me to not cook. I'm a lousy cook, and she wanted something good to eat. But she settled for cereal.
I was surprised that there was cereal on the shelf — I never eat it, never buy it — but I wasn't surprised that Steph was in the kitchen, walking around and hungry, and that she wanted some Rice Chex for dinner. She often ate cereal, and sometimes had Rice Chex for dinner. It's mild, which could be perfect when her belly wasn't going to be happy with anything beefy or fishy or chickeny.
When I'm awake, I'm months past expecting Steph to be at home with me, but in dreams like this she's so very, very much still my wife, still Steph, still happy and stubborn and walking, and wanting to do something fun this weekend. The dreams are never complicated; it's just Steph being Steph, and she or we are doing things we routinely did — a picnic at the park, a drive to nowhere in particular, or in my best and very favorite dreams, we're having a conversation. Any of these dreams are delightful. It's waking up afterwards that sucks.
It never hits me like a sudden storm; no, it takes time before I understand. First, I reach out to her but she's not there, and I wonder where she is. For so many years she's always been there, always, whenever I wake up. So — huh? It just doesn't make sense; there's nowhere she could be.
Did she work late? No, she sometimes worked overtime, but never so late that I'd fallen asleep.
Did she take a trip without me? That happened exactly once, and it only lasted a few days, so — no.
Did we have a fight and she'd stormed home to her mother? That happened never, only in sit-coms on TV, so — no.
Then, as reality begins dripping in, I wonder if Steph might be sick in the hospital, but even that doesn't make sense, because if she was hospitalized, I'd be sleeping in a chair next to her hospital bed — so again, like always, when one of us woke up the other would be there. But I just woke up, and she's not here. It's a mystery, and I don't like it, and I'm not sure where she could be. Why isn't she here?
It takes several minutes for my feeble mind to work its way through these questions. Every time.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes I ask the same question — Why isn't she here? — when I'm wide awake. Did Stephanie, at least on some level, die on purpose? The first time I asked that question, my immediate response was NO! All caps, italics, with exclamation point. She loved the heck out of me, and there's no way she would've left if she'd had a choice.
But there is more to it than that. With all of Stephanie's health issues, we had discussed whether life was worth living, and worst-case scenarios, and all that horrid stuff, in depth. Many times we talked about death, and sometimes about suicide. That's how bad the hemodialysis was.
How can I convey the horror of it? Hemodialysis required Steph to be at the kidney clinic early in the morning, every Monday, every Wednesday, and every Friday. While she was there she was often treated coldly, sometimes treated rudely, and always treated as a patient — and she hated being a patient. She usually felt physically ill, beginning the moment she was hooked up to the dialysis machine. The procedure regularly made her dizzy and nauseous. She hated every minute of it, and it took four hours, and after every treatment she was exhausted and had to sleep — so her day was over, even though she'd only been awake for a few hours and those hours had been awful. In a very real sense, then, dialysis swallowed three entire days, every week.
So yeah, several times she said, "I'm not sure life is worth living," and on especially bad days — in pain, or in the hospital — she occasionally said in so many words, "I wish I was dead."
Let me clarify this: Steph didn't bring up suicide often. She mentioned it exactly three times during the year and a half she was on hemodialysis. "I wish I was dead" was a line she used only at her bleakest, most miserable points — perhaps half a dozen times over the course of several years. She certainly never attempted suicide; she was just blowing off steam. And I tried to talk her away from even saying such things, tried my best to make something worthwhile out of the four days a week of life she was allowed.
I responded with optimistic words, but I very much understood her frustrations. She wasn't just miserable and barely present those three days a week; dialysis left her so exhausted that she needed to sleep late the following day, leaving her with short days even on days without dialysis. You'd have to be an especially empty-headed Mary Poppins to live that life and not think at least once in a while about ending it.
After almost a year of asking to be switched to home dialysis, when the change was finally approved it was like manna from Heaven, and we were both very happy. Home dialysis was awful too, and it left her exhausted, and she described it as "a new and improved form of Hell," but it was an improvement. She felt like she had seven days a week instead of four. And one afternoon, shortly after she had started home dialysis, we were driving along West Washington Avenue, and we had a brief conversation that I'll never forget.
"Remember," she said, "when I said I was thinking about giving up?"
"I remember."
"Well, I want you to know, just in case the home dialysis doesn't work out, that I've decided to stay. Even if staying means going back on hemo and going to that awful clinic and having my life reduced to four days a week, I'd want to stay. Because of you, I'd want to stay."
I had to pull the car over to the side of the road, because my eyes were too watery to see. "Steph," I said, "that's terrific to hear, and it's a big relief." Then a long pause, while I gathered the words I wanted to say. "It's also the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."
She kissed me in the car, illegally stopped in a bus zone beside Brittingham Park, where we then waited a few minutes for my vision to clear, before continuing home. In all the time we lived in Madison, we only went to that park once or twice. That afternoon, we didn't even get out of the car. Still, it's a memory and a conversation that replays in my mind every time I drive that stretch of West Wash, and often when I'm nowhere near that part of town.
So did Stephanie exit the world on purpose? Nope. Absolutely not. But she was so weary of the doctors and doctoring, she was willing to gamble a bit with her health, if it meant she wouldn't have to have yet another medical appointment. That's what she did on purpose, by choice. That's why she didn't make an appointment, when she was feeling poorly and not eating well last summer — a few weeks before she died.
There are days when I can't shake my regret, my unending regret, that I didn't demand that she see a doctor. I suggested it, several times, but as always, we agreed that it was her decision, and she wanted to wait and see if she'd feel better. She waited too long, and she didn't see a doctor about it, until I found her crumpled beside the bed and called an ambulance, when I came home from work one afternoon.
I'm always going to regret not demanding that she see a doctor, but I can also hear what Stephanie said so many times. "It's my body, my health, my choice. If you nag me too much to make a doctor's appointment, I'll dig in my heels and never make an appointment."
If I could go back in time and warn her when she started feeling poorly, "This time it will literally kill you," I'm certain she would've made an appointment pronto. But without the fantasy of time travel, all I said was, "You ought to see a doctor," and "I wish you'd see a doctor," and "It would be a good idea to see a doctor." I suppose the most powerful way I could've phrased it was, "It might kill you," but I know what she would've said to that. "If it kills me it kills me. I'll take that chance, because if it's not my choice then I might as well be dead anyway."
In not seeing a doctor, she was taking a chance, and she knew it. We were both too stupid to understand that the stakes were life and death, not just sickness and hospitalization, but Stephanie knew she was taking a chance. And I knew that she knew. So there's no-one to blame but me and her.
But I also know that she wasn't choosing to die. She was only choosing not to see a doctor, not yet. And that's not just a rationalization, to make me feel better. Know how I know it's not? Because it doesn't make me feel better. Not even a fraction of an iota.