For some of us, life ends in a zip-up bag and a ride in a white van. My 72-year-old neighbor, who lived adjacent to me for more than five years, died last month. She had a massive heart attack while gardening in her back yard and lay dead under a tree for two days before someone found her. Paradoxically, the day she died, her immediate next-door neighbors were living it up at a big birthday celebration in their own back yard, completely oblivious to the fact that this woman, who lived alone for about 30 years, was lying dead, just yards away, separated by a fence. Like a veil between life and death. I was home the day her son stopped by her house to find out why she hadn’t answered his repeated phone calls. An unusually quiet house and open door to the back yard led him to the grim discovery. From my living room window, I watched with curiosity as policemen came in and out of the house, thinking at first that there must have been a robbery. But when a long, refrigerator-like white van pulled up (think CSI), I understood immediately that my neighbor had passed away. Although I didn’t know her very well (other neighbors would later comment at how private and aloof she was), I was saddened by her death. It’s a reality jolt when someone dies and you think, “I will never see that person again!”
Weird, isn’t it? The last time I saw her, we were both dragging our trash cans to the curb for Thursday’s pick-up. Something many of us do, week in and week out. I’m a friendly person, so I looked toward her, ready to wave. I’m sure she knew I was there, but she never looked up, and then disappeared into her home. It was in the days following her death that I learned more about this distant neighbor. She had been married for about 15 years, then divorced and became a single mother when her sons were in high school. She loved the theater, books and roses. And she never married again. Maybe she was happy and preferred life this way. Many women do. A study released not long ago revealed that for the first time ever, more than half of the women in this country are single — including me. But in the back of my mind, in some reservoir of my healing heart, I hope that I won’t always be. I don’t want to die alone, as my neighbor did. I want to look into the comforting eyes of someone I love before I take my last breath. My first breaths were taken this way. All I’m asking for is to go out the way I came in. I think some single parents can come out of a bad marriage so beaten down that they are reluctant to open their hearts again and trust in relationships. But we must learn that we are here to love, to connect and to wave occasionally to each other. When I die, life will go on, of course. Neighbors will continue to have backyard parties without me. But at the very least, I want them to be able to say, “I really miss Lynn. I’m glad I knew her.” Freelance Writer Lynn Armitage is still alive and kicking. She is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.