If you have ever heard one of Charles Osgood‘s journalistic pieces on the radio, this line is familiar. For those who don’t, he tells the back story of someone who we all THINK we know about and we learn something we didn’t know: the rest of the story. This is what came to mind for me when I recently learned the story of one of my old neighbors.
Just knowing your neighbors’ names, some of their likes and dislikes, and chatting every once in a while might delude you into thinking you know them at least a little bit. But you could be TOTALLY off-base. I recently had a thought-provoking experience of this nature I wanted to share.
I lived in my neighborhood for 7 years (give or take). I knew most of my neighbors’ names and felt very comfortable there. My husband and I recently started renting out our home, and lo and behold, I got the mind-boggling news from the renter!
These particular neighbors had a lovely home with no children, but two beautiful dogs. I would occasionally see the wife outside in the yard, playing with the dogs, or either of them walking the dogs around the neighborhood. I never noticed until after I heard the news that I don’t remember seeing them together.
One thing I did know, ambulances have been there a few times; the husband had tried to commit suicide a couple of years ago. This knowledge did not make me suspicious; if anything, I felt some sympathy. Years ago I had a neighbor who committed suicide and I witnessed his mother’s pain firsthand. (One never knows the burdens that others carry.) Given this knowledge, I wrote this journal entry back in March:
…Last night at 8:30ish there were ambulances and fire trucks at (name omitted) house again. He has tried to kill himself before — every time I see the light I think he may have succeeded — it’s a sad thing. Could be a poem???
Following the date trail… in my writing journal, I had written this poem (with a couple little tweaks…I also added a note at the top for reference):
I see the telltale lights
Blaring through the winter woods,
The box of the ambulance outlined in red
Hulking in front of blinking blue
And more blinking red;
They’re all here.
I am mesmerized by the jarring color
in the grey doldrums of reluctant winter.
We’ve changed the clocks to get more light later,
But too late for my neighbor?
I want to push the old saying
Out of my head, “Third times a charm”
But it is like a mantra
that won’t stop.
I stop short of murmuring it out loud.
He tried to end his life twice before –
Is this his time?
This long snowy winter of hard times,
Broken trees, fixed incomes
And social isolation.
The lights have slunk away quietly: with
Relief or resignation?
I turn back to my TV and let it go.
How WRONG I was!!
My renter told me the wife was found dead on the front lawn (not sure if this is true, but it is what she told me). Although she had cancer, it was not clear that this was responsible for her death. She heard from another neighbor there was a history of domestic violence and her family regarded her death as suspicious. A toxicology report is pending (or inconclusive). After hearing this I researched her on the internet, found her obituary (sure enough…March 10th, the day before my journal entry), and a news story about how her family was fighting to change the laws so that when a person dies — in cases where there is a previous evidence of domestic violence — the surviving spouse does NOT have custody of the body (in this case, the ashes). The article said that a couple of years ago the husband was up on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder and his wife had testified against him.
I felt shocked and sad that I did not know what this woman was going through. I felt terrible that I wasn’t friendlier to her.
Ironically, I went over to their house a couple of weeks ago (before I knew any of this) to see if her husband was home to help me start my lawn mower. His car wasn’t there, but I rang the bell. I thought I heard a sound inside so I called out her name, thinking maybe she was home. Maybe it was the dogs. The neighborhood was eerily silent and my voice seemed loud. No one answered. Now I know why.