Death Didn’t Take a Holiday

We had a death in the neighborhood yesterday. Actually, we aren’t sure when our neighbor died. It could have been yesterday, but more than likely he had been dead for several days – or more – before being discovered. The last time his neighbor across the street saw him alive was on Thanksgiving. She later became concerned after noticing that his garbage hadn’t been brought curb-side for pick-up and that a flyer hung on his door hadn’t been touched.

We live in a fairly tight-knit neighborhood. We pretty much know everyone up and down both sides of our long block. There are a lot of long-time residents; one or two are the original owners of their late 1950’s era homes. It’s almost impossible to walk from one end of the block to the other without stopping multiple times to chat. It is the type of neighborhood many people want to live in—friendly, sociable, supportive, and connected.

John’s mother was one of those original owners. Before Audrey passed away several years ago, she put the house and a sizable amount of money into a trust for her son. She did this because she knew that John wouldn’t be able to care for himself because of his mental illness. Despite his violent behavior towards her and others, and his pattern of eschewing medication for his bipolar disorder and instead feeding his meth habit, she decided that the best place for her son was in our neighborhood.

Most of the time, we were able to ignore John and his craziness. He could often be seen walking in the area wearing multiple layers of clothing (even in the summer) and large headphones, constantly talking to himself. Other than being odd, he was mostly harmless; he avoided us and we avoided him. Other times, though, he’d become enraged and verbally attacked those who lived around him. He was enough of a threat that a few neighbors took out restraining orders against him. It was not unusual to see several police cars in front of his house. We quickly learned, though, that it’s not possible to force a mentally ill person into treatment if he refuses. Even if he doesn’t have water or gas service because of unpaid bills. Even if it is obvious that his mental and physical health is deteriorating. Even if we think he could be a threat to himself or others. Even if.

John had a sister and two kids from an earlier marriage. All had been victims of his abuse and all had become estranged from him over the years. Once his mother died the only people who “cared” about him were those who could profit from him; the ones who took advantage of his mental state by crashing at his house, eating his food, or selling him drugs.

So, now John is dead and the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief. Whether he died of drugs or a heart attack; whether he had been dead one day or six before being found, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that he died alone and without a friend in the world. His kids – both now young adults and seemingly reasonably-adjusted – will live with a memory of a father they could never know. They also now have a house to dispose of- the inside of which is probably so disgusting a sane person wouldn’t live there. They have a lot of work ahead of them to get it in any shape to sell.

We are a neighborhood that looks out for one another. We help each other with house and car projects. We celebrate good times together and support each other when bad things happen. But, this one got away from us. We watched helplessly as John’s life careened out of control and spiraled down to its inevitable conclusion.

I admit that I wasn’t sad when I found out that John had died. His pain is over and his neighbors no longer need to be afraid of what he might do. I am sad that we can’t, as a society, do more to aid these tortured souls. Because of lack of funding and a few probably well-intentioned laws that had unintended consequences, we are often helpless to intervene.

I think we can do better.

Having a Cool Yule

Wow, here it is December 1, and I haven’t purchased a single Christmas gift. I didn’t leave the Thanksgiving dinner table and head to the mall. I didn’t set my alarm for o-dark-thirty the next morning so I could join the Black Friday throngs standing in line to save a few bucks. And now my Cyber Monday virtual shopping carts are empty.

Many years ago my brothers and I, along with our spouses, decided to stop buying gifts for each other. Every Thanksgiving, we’d each write our name on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Then we’d draw a name and that would be the only one of the six of us we bought a gift for. $50 limit. In addition to that gift, my husband and I bought presents for each other, our parents, a niece, a grandniece, and a couple of friends. Pretty simple.

This plan worked well for several years but, after awhile, even the one gift seemed silly. The $50 gift price limit soon became a gift card exchange which didn’t feel very personal… or needed. So, a few years ago, the six of us decided to stop exchanging gifts with each altogether. Now, with my parents’ passing my husband’s and my gift list has dwindled down to just a few people. For the most part, we don’t even exchange gifts with each other. Sometimes we’ll buy each other little things for fun, and we can usually identify an upcoming trip or a household need that becomes our joint “gift” to each other, but usually there’s not much under the Christmas tree… if we even have a Christmas tree.

I'm pretty sure some of these gifts under my family's 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.
I’m pretty sure some of these gifts under my family’s 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.

These decisions have helped to change the holiday season for the better. I don’t experience the stress I used to because now I no longer am focused on buying PERFECT GIFTS. My husband and I can stroll the mall and enjoy the hustle and bustle and the lovely displays, but not get wrapped up in the craziness.

Do I sound like a bah humbug? I’m really not. I love the holiday lights, decorations, music (as long as it doesn’t start before Thanksgiving) and the parties. I don’t love the crass commercialism and the media-driven expectations. I’m also not against Christmas presents; if I happen to think of the perfect gift for someone, I’ll get it. If not, I don’t spend time running around desperately trying to find something. I’ve never been particularly religious but the whole idea of Christmas gifts seems odd to me anyway. Why is the focus on buying things for each other when the “reason for the season” is supposed to be about peace and joy?

In addition to the stress relief, our move away from buying and receiving presents has been beneficial in other ways. At this stage of our lives we are actively working on getting rid of “stuff.” Thanks to thrift stores, eBay, consignment shops, and the landfill, I finally feel like we’re making progress. No gifts means no more stuff. Besides, instead of a friend or loved one spending their time searching for THE PERFECT GIFT for me, I’d much prefer they give me the gift of time spent together, enjoying each other’s company.

Photo101: Double

For today’s word assignment, “double,” I have two images. Both of them are of the two halves of a single fruit.

The first image is of a sliced dragon fruit. The insides were so beautiful, I took a picture before scooping out the flesh to eat.

Dragon1

The second image is of a pomegranate that had split in two on the vine.

Pamogranet2

  

 

Photo101: Edge

Today’s assignment is to “show an edge — a straight line, a narrow ridge, a precipice.”

There are a few edges in this photo (taken at the Volker Eisele Family Estate winery in Napa Valley), including a precipice that the little figure seems to be considering.

There was absolutely no edge to the wine though; it was smooth and wonderful.

 

 

Photo101: Glass

Succulents are sculptural, low-water plants that come in an almost unending variety of shapes, sizes and colors. These dry-climate jewels are perfectly suited to our area’s Mediterranean climate because they store water in their leaves, stems, or roots.

The mirror hung on the fence bounces the sunlight and reflects another view of the aeonium in bloom.

Mirrior1

Construction Zone

Our living room has been in disarray for a couple of months as we’ve been working on our latest home improvement project: removing our old fireplace, reframing the wall, installing a new fireplace, tiling the surround, and installing new cabinets. While working on this project, we have completely reconfigured our living room and dining room furniture to get it out of the way of the mess and allow room to work. We hope to be done with everything before the end of the year.

The toilet in our master bathroom is currently sitting on its side in the middle of the floor. Also, all of the items that usually reside under our kitchen sink are now out of the cabinet and in the garage.

Lovely, huh?
Lovely, huh?

Although the living room project was planned, the toilet and kitchen sink were a complete surprise. When we returned home after being away for several weeks, we discovered water where it shouldn’t be; first around the toilet, then under the sink… totally independent, totally unexpected, and totally not what we need right now. Although there wasn’t a lot of water, any water where it shouldn’t be can’t be ignored.

It seems like my husband and I have at least one home project in the works almost continually. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but almost always it (or they) becomes a focus in our lives for far too much time. After the living room is done, there are at least two more good-sized projects I can think of waiting in the wings. This doesn’t include the normal house maintenance projects everyone has (our water heater should be replaced, the living room needs repainting, bushes need trimming, etc.).

We claim that we don’t want to keep taking on these projects, yet, for some reason, we do. We say that our idea of a fulfilling retirement includes more focus on fun, travel and hobbies, and less on construction, dust, and upheaval, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

One of the problems is that we (and by “we” I mean my husband) are pretty skilled at do-it-yourself projects. And, because we (my husband) know how to do these things, we like them to be done a certain way. In addition, we (that would be both of us) are relatively frugal and have a hard time justifying paying someone else to do what we can do ourselves.

Upon returning home from our latest trip, we walked into the living room we left. The one wall was still just bare studs; the brown craft paper was still taped to the floor; the furniture was still topsy-turvy. We didn’t expect HGTV to visit our home and finish everything while we were gone, but the contrast of where we just were (on vacation: pure leisure for three weeks) and what was in front of us was striking. It was good to be home – we love our home – but we had a hard time facing the work we still have to do.

We’ve recently talked about our habit of taking on too much and agree that we need to make some changes in our approach to large household projects. We want to be more realistic about what REALLY needs to be done and, if we decide the outcome is worth the effort and expense, be more open to paying someone else to do the work. Then, after receiving a tradesperson’s bid, the (usually shockingly high) estimate needs to be evaluated against the physical and psychological costs of doing the work ourselves. Are we willing to have our retirement filled with days (weeks, months) of labor? How about the little quarrels that often occur when we are tired and stressed? And then, of course, there are the aches and pains we most likely will suffer because we are no longer 30… or 40.

When we take everything into consideration as we compare one cost to the other, I expect that often the value of freeing up our time will be worth the expense.