When Denis* moved into the apartment next door about five years ago, the noise volume suddenly increased to intolerable decibels. After several confrontations, we managed to find ways to handle the situation more respectably. He stopped blasting music in the wee hours, and I bought a variety of white noise machines to mask sounds I didn’t want to hear.
Over the last couple of years, the situation improved. We exchanged pleasant smiles and hellos, and even danced together in the park one time when there was an outdoor concert. We weren’t exactly ‘friends’, but we made peace as neighbours.
Winters have generally been quieter. With our windows closed, the sounds didn’t come through as loudly. However, one recent warm, sunny day, I heard Denis out on his balcony, banging around furniture and flower pots with a friend. He was big on outdoor living and making full use of his larger-than-anyone-else’s balcony space. I thought, “oh dear, here we go again.”
Later that day, I went to pick up the mail. I returned to my apartment door the same time Denis arrived at his.
“How are you?” he asked.
I looked up to see him with a woman pushing him in a wheelchair. I walked over to him.
“Very well, thanks,” I said. “But you don’t look like you’re doing too well.” I figured maybe he broke an ankle or something, but as I got closer, I could see how skinny he’d become. He had a slight build to begin with; but he now appeared about 20 years older than when I last saw him.
“I have terminal lung cancer,” he said. “Haven’t you heard me coughing?”
Up until that day, I had only heard small nagging coughs through the wall. But earlier that day, there had been an extended, violent cough.
I told him that I was sorry to hear about this.
“It’s okay,” he said, almost cheerfully. “I’ve been having treatments. Now, I’m just working on my bucket list.”
This intrigued me and put a smile on my face. I asked him what’s on the bucket list. He fired off a whole bunch of things he wanted to do right here in the Okanagan.
“Lake cruise, ziplining, parasailing…” were on his bucket list. I smiled and encouraged him. I wished him well.
Over the next couple of days, I wondered what I could do to help Denis fulfill that bucket list. Could I physically help him do any of those things, being that he is now in a wheelchair? Maybe instead, I could bring him some take-out dinner or even a special coffee?
I work from home and spend all day at my computer, while he’d be just on the other side of the wall next to me. I found myself anxiously listening to any sound from him that I could cling to: I listened for every cough. In my mind, I said, “Denis, you can play your music as loud as you want, any time!” It put tremendous perspective on my petty intolerances from the past. I felt guilty for wishing he’d move… I certainly didn’t want it to be under these circumstances! I hoped he would get better. Oh, please stay!
And then, it was quiet. So quiet. For days. I rationalized that he was probably in hospital for treatment; maybe they had to keep him overnight.
Then, I saw a woman go into his apartment. I heard her on Denis’ balcony, shifting things. I heard her offering Denis’ plants to the neighbour on the other side. I tried to tell myself that maybe he’s just not able to care for the plants during our hot summers while he’s focussing on improving his health.
But I knew. And I was grateful work sent me away for a week while Denis’ apartment was being cleared.
For the couple of weeks since Denis’ passing, I’ve been in a weird headspace. There’s been some guilt that I didn’t connect with him more positively as a better neighbour. There’s gratitude that our final exchange was a hopeful, positive sharing of his dreams and joys in life. There’s a deep sadness that he went so very quickly.
Predominantly, there was a disturbing, relatable feeling. Here was a man of my generation, who (like me) came to live far away from his family and ‘normal’ life. There was this feeling — entirely my feeling — of his life being unfulfilled. There was that outstanding bucket list.
What’s my bucket list? What should I be doing with my life? Am I on the right path? Should I move? What do I need to change to ensure I live each moment to its fullest? Denis’ passing has stirred all of this up.
Anyone’s passing causes us to face our own mortality and begin a very deep reflection on our own life.
Today in Kelowna, there was a Walk of Memories event. It’s an annual ceremonial walk to support reflection on loss. I only learned of it, like, yesterday. Having lost many loved ones in recent years, I felt drawn to go.
There were several gestures to partake in which gave people an opportunity to honour loved ones. My favourite was the sailing flags you could write a personal message on.
“How many flags can I have?” I asked the volunteer. She said I could have as many as I wanted, so I asked for five, knowing that even so, I’d have to write a bunch of names on at least one of those flags.
When I picked up a pen to write, there was one name that came out on top. I couldn’t say why he’d trump my parents, or my childhood best friend; peers I shared health issues with who didn’t make it; or my colleagues that were tragic losses. Maybe because Denis was the freshest, and I’m still processing the loudness of the quiet next door.
It was Denis’ name that rang loudest through my pen. I wrote:
“Denis: Here’s to your bucket list! Play your music as loud as you like! 🙂 ”
It was then that I was told these flags would be raised onto a sailboat, and take a cruise along Okanagan Lake. I feel tremendous gratitude to have been able to give Denis this symbolic gesture akin to one of those items on his bucket list. It gives me a sense of peaceful closure.
*Denis is pronounced Deh-nee’. He was French-Canadian, from Quebec.
Denis: Here’s to Your Bucket List © June 3, 2018 | Annie Zalezsak