Thursday, April 2, 2009

When neighbours have no fences

It was my first apartment, and I'd promised my new neighbour downstairs that the first thing I'd do whenever I bought a shiny new DVD player was bring down my copy of 'Singin' in the Rain' and watch it with her. I had got my first real job and was able to afford new things for my awesome apartment. My enthusiasm knew no limits. No more hand-me-downs or church-donated stuff for me!

So there I stood at her door, brand spankin' new DVD player under one arm, the movie in another, and a beaming smile on my face. Betty-Lou Schweir let me in, and I set to work plugging my awesome new purchase from Circuit City to her TV. Betty-Lou was an 89-year-old widow who lived by herself at Sheridan Pond, the apartment complex I would call home for 3.5 years. A piece of heaven tucked away on 81st and Sheridan, by the two gas stations and the Neighbourhood WalMart. Betty-Lou had lost her husband twenty-something years ago to a heart attack. Her middle-aged twin sons didn't talk to each but often dropped by with their families or called her over to their homes in Colorado and Oklahoma. I'd introduced myself to her the same way I had to my other neighbours - I left a 'Hi, new neighbour!' card at her doorstep with two copies of my business card, my first business cards. She was the only one that had responded, and that made the two of us friends. I was amazed at the courage of the woman to live all by herself. I'd often see her from my window upstairs, hobbling along to collect her mail or pay her rent. She was delicate with paper-thin white skin. Her voice was soft and often wavered and broke in little chinks. Her short hair was always done up in perfect curls. Over time we began to exchange muffins, cookies, and hot Pillsbury biscuits. She would call me if I left my car lights on by mistake, and I'd randomly drop in to say hello without telling her that I was feeling lonely and scared. We'd exchange presents on birthdays and bring each other trinkets from long trips. I once randomly bought her something I always wished people would give me: a fresh bouquet of yellow roses.

Betty-Lou's apartment was done up in the old Victorian style. All her furniture had pink roses on them. Her china tea set was on permanent display on her four-seater dinner table which she never sat at. Her couches and chairs were upholstered and had wooden panelling to hold it all together. She'd often watch TV late in the night because that's when the old shows and movies would be on. A fourposter bed dominated the little bedroom, and she particularly enjoyed her wallclock which would chirp in various bird calls on the hour every hour. Now my mother has the same clock in our house in Oman.

A fine pair we made that evening. Delicate and luminous Betty-Lou, and a rambunctious and tomboyish me. But we watched the entire movie, beginning to end. I'd seen it a hundred times before, it's a personal favourite that makes me feel pretty everytime. Betty-Lou had only watched it once, with her husband at the movies in 1952. We giggled, we laughed, we reminisced. At one point, she made me pause the movie so she could go fetch the last Valentine's Day card she had received from her husband for me. I felt guilty and honoured at the same time. I hadn't meant to conjure up past grief within her. She told me that the movie made her remember the days she had been young, when tap dance was in style, when Gene Kelly was alive, when chivalry lived, and when innocence wasn't mocked. We talked a little bit about how things used to be and then went back to finish the movie. She showed me around her apartment after that. I remember a pretty little framed pencil drawing that hung on her bedroom wall. She told me that it had been made on the spot by her best friend in their youth as they sat under a tree. Her friend was about to toss the drawing but Betty-Lou had asked her to give it to her instead. That was the story behind that lonely relic.

A couple of years later I was returning home from work. I had parked my car in my usual spot and was passing Betty-Lou's apartment to go upstairs. A man I later remembered having seen in Betty-Lou's sons' photo came up to me and introduced himself as, sure enough, her son. He said he knew me from talks he'd had with his mother, and that he wanted to thank me for having watched over her the way I did. He told me that Betty-Lou had fallen down a few days ago and had broken her hip. She was now in a nursing home. He told me the name of the place and the phone number I could reach her at. She was eager to see me, he said, and she wouldn't be returning to her apartment at Sheridan Pond.

I felt terrible. Not only did I feel horrid about Betty-Lou's health, but I had been having such extreme personal issues that I wasn't able to call her for a while. When I did heal myself enough, I realised I had lost her contact details. I looked for it high and low, but that was the last I ever heard of Betty-Lou Schweir.

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