I just ran into my neighbor, Collin. Seeing him made me think of his mother, Willie Kate. Willie Kate and Collin moved in to the house across the street about five years ago, just a few months after we moved into ours. Willie Kate was constantly working in her yard and when she did this she would usually leave the front door standing wide open. One day I was in my front yard with my daughter and two dogs. My dog Oscar saw Willie Kate across the street and couldn’t resist introducing himself. He ran to greet her but didn’t stop there, instead he ran into her house where he discovered her cat. In the process of retrieving my dachshund from her guest bedroom, Willie Kate offered me an open invitation to bring my daughter by for visits whenever I wanted to. I took her up on her offer and along with playgroup and storytime, Willie Kate made it onto my weekly calendar.
Bella and I would visit her once a week. She’d feed Bella homemade cookies and tell me the stories of her life. They were always the same stories…her first husband who died in the war, her two daughters that had their babies in the same week, the baby she had that didn’t make it, the lady who made poor little Collin think that he was being replaced by the newest sibling in the family, and her years of working as a nurse. In between my visits, I would watch her outside planting flowers or raking leaves and marvel at the way she moved that 85-year-old body of hers.
When Callee was born and Bella went to preschool, I found myself with less time for visits to Willie Kate’s house. Around that time, Collin was diagnosed with cancer. When we would visit Willie Kate, she would talk often about how concerned she was for his health. I know she feared the worst…that she would outlive yet another child. I began to notice a difference in the house at that time. It seemed to be sick as well. I visited less frequently, always using the “too busy” excuse, never knowing that Willie Kate was getting sick too. The last time I sat with her in her living room, she was recovering from a surgery to remove skin cancer. She was confident the doctors had gotten it all and she would be fine, but not so sure about Collin.
Then one day Collin knocked on my door. “I just wanted to let you know that my mom has cancer. She could go anytime. We’ve called Hospice.”
I thanked him for letting me know and wondered what to do. I knew he had told everyone that knew her and that they would all be calling and visiting. I watched the cars come and go from the house, but I didn’t cross the street. I called her one afternoon and told her that I had wanted to let her have some peace and that’s why I hadn’t visited. The truth was, I was scared to visit. I didn’t know what to say, how to act, or even how to be next to someone that was dying. She asked me to visit. I went the next day and no one came to the door. That was it, I’d made the effort. I think I called her one more time.
About a month after Collin stopped by, birds started flying into my windows, tapping on the glass with their beaks. They tapped on the bedroom window when I was working on the computer, the living room window when I was watching TV, and the dining room window when I was eating meals. They tapped and they tapped everyday for a week or two. Then one day I looked across the street and saw a black ribbon on the mailbox. I went to the funeral a few days later. There hasn’t been another bird tapping on my window since then.
I often wish I’d known what those birds were trying to tell me. I wish I’d gone over and said goodbye. I wish I’d taken my precious daughters over to make her smile, instead of being afraid to show them sickness. I think of her often and she will forever be an inspiration to me. I hope she knows how sorry I am for not visiting one last time.