“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”- Bryan Stephenson, author of “Just Mercy.”
“I just found a dead man on the corner right outside the apartment,”
I blurted as I walked into my daughter’s new home in the gentrified neighborhood where she and my son in law bought their first house. I can identify their neat, tidy yard and house built in the 1940’s when I pull onto the unfamiliar block because of the landmark created by the house next door. Intruding weeds spill over their neighbor’s broken fence, covering niches in the broken rickrack that hide the two feral cats lurking over there as my car pulls into our side’s driveway.
“You’re not in Iowa anymore Yia Yia, there are homeless people and drug dealers in your neighborhood now,” replied my son in law, non- phased with my breathless announcement. He presented me with my one week old granddaughter, who didn’t notice the handoff, lost in her nursing-mother-milk drunken bliss.
I held the tiny little girl and smelled her sweet baby’s breath, deliberately slowing my own staccato breaths into long, deliberate abdominally fed streams.
The morning had started beautifully. My dog Yogi and I walked along the canal that flows near the apartment where I am staying. The apartment is deep in the city, a spot that wouldn’t typically have been my choice. But I volunteered to ride out the kids’ lease that is running for two more months. They found the house of their dreams nearby and moved before the lease ended, leaving a vacant place for me to stay while I explored relocating to their city in my post-Covid intentional change of circumstances.
I’d come there after the Covid- inspired epiphany that convinced me to leave my safe and comfortable life in Iowa. What was I doing spending day after day alone, working, working, working while time was ticking, ticking, ticking and my children were living the exhilarating beginning of their sweet new family lives far away? And what about my year- old grandson and the new baby? Would they know their Yia Yia as the woman who came to visit now and again with special presents and lots of kisses and hugs and then blew away only to be seen again on the screen of a facetime call? Knowing the depth of my love and close relationship with my own grandmother that thought was too painful.
So I took a radical step. I sold my house, donated most of my possessions to charity, put some boxes of my remaining clothing and possessions into a POD that would meet me in my new location. Then I threw Yogi in the car with my computer, dog treats and a backpack of clothing for the two day trip across country to my new home.
The move itself was uneventful but locating to a new urban environment in one of the biggest cities in the country was literally a trip. The POD delivered the boxed items that had survived my brutal decluttering, and I transferred them to the garage. A month later the boxes all remain taped shut and mostly in tact. Although I’d determined before leaving Iowa I needed very little, it became even more evident what was needed was even less than I’d first imagined.
In the zoom environment, in a city where I new very few people, I didn’t have to be the person I’d left behind. I could be “less than” all that I’d been before and that realization along with being free of physical clutter gave me a freedom and space to become alive in ways I’d lost in my tenure as a busy professional in the mainstream of life. My intention to be “less than” was after years of aspiring to be “more than.” More successful, more productive, more “important”. That life left behind seemed to disappear in my rearview mirror as soon as I’d crossed state lines. Letting go of “too much” to embrace “less” was intoxicating.
Granted, my new environment was quite different. Instead of being comfortable in a neighborhood of like individuals, socio-economically situated alongside me, I was learning to be comfortable being with a cross section of people in and near my apartment who were dramatically different than me. The clang of the public transportation train dinging intermittently outside my apartment door. The voices of people using that public transportation and talking loudly to each other or themselves as Yogi and I walk along the grass barren city streets.
My first inclination was to retreat, stay locked in (was the lock strong enough?), look quickly for a permanent fancy apartment in the stylish suburb, and in the meantime to keep my head down when outside so I didn’t make eye contact with someone who could hurt me. Should I listen to a podcast with my ear phones on while walking Yogi? Or would that block my hearing so I couldn’t prepare for an abrupt defensive move that might be needed. I was shocked at how out of touch I was with any discomfort. My “comfortable” life had lulled me into complacency. Before the move my only with discomfort was when I read about horrible things on Twitter before bed. But then, I could turn that off and sleep comfortably in my warm and abundant home.
Eventually I became more at ease in the city. I loved wearing the same outfits over and over knowing that nobody in my circle noticed or cared how I was dressed, or maybe even if I was dressed at all, and that also gave me another level of freedom. I started to smile at strangers who looked nothing like me. Some of those strangers were taking out loud to themselves and one had all of his possessions in an overstuffed backpack bursting at the seams next to him while he played a purple plastic ukulele with a smile on his weather beaten face.
God and I were doing something new.
Until the dead man turned up.
After Yogi and I completed our walk that morning, we stopped back at the apartment to regroup before setting off to go see my family. I was particularly excited to see the week old baby girl and her toddler brother. I pulled the car out of the apartment complex gate with Yogi riding shotgun, and there he was. The dead man.
He was sprawled on the curb of the first cross street only a few feet from the apartment drive. His body was contorted and his leg bent up behind him in what immediately called up in me a yoga pose I’d done in the spacious yoga studio with others in the group adorned in Lululemon. Only our dead man wasn’t moving or breathing and he had on ripped up jeans and a plaid shirt only partially buttoned. The sprinkler from the yard adjacent to his corner was sprinkling the dry grass around his upper body and squirting him lightly but consistently in the face. The fact that water wasn’t disrupting his position was another clue he was dead.
Cars passed by. “They probably thought somebody else would call,” said my daughter as I talked to my family about this ordeal while squeezing my baby granddaughter tighter.
“They were right about that. I called.” And when I called I hysterically tried to describe what I’d come across while being disoriented in this new city, “the northeast, no the southwest, corner of this street and that street, no wait, it’s another street.” I wondered if the emergency operator thought I’d run over the man.
Another woman finally stopped her car alongside mine. We looked at each other for a long moment. “He’s dead isnt’ he?” I asked.“ I’ve got 911 on the phone.”
“Yes,” she said, “he’s definitely dead.” Although our faces looked very different than each other’s as our eyes locked we shared an unspoken feeling of connection and sameness. At that moment, we were both in the midst of death, the great equalizer.
Now, as I sat in the rocker and rocked my precious granddaughter I wondered about the dead man’s story. What was it about him, or us, or life, or the city, or his family or his friends or his path that led him to die alone on a busy city street with strangers whirling by without stopping? Was he homeless and involved with drugs like my son in law hypothesized or was there another story?
Gazing at our baby’s sweet angelic face, I found the sweet angelic face of the dead man. One day he was a week old baby, soft and fresh and newly introduced to life with sweet smelling milk breath. How did his life lead him to that morning?
I held my granddaughter in the crook of my left arm and touched my heart with my right hand as I sent him a cosmic message.
“Godspeed dear friend.”