Thank You, Neighbor

Neighbors
You couldn’t ask for better neighbors than Malcolm and Cindy. That’s what our landlord said when I first saw our old place, a little cabin on the meadow in Lake Tahoe. He was right.

A month after my girlfriend Lisa and I moved in, six feet of snow dropped out of the sky. Malcolm let me use his snowblower. When I returned it gratefully he chuckled—not at me, but at the circumstance. That’s the way it was with Malcolm. He laughed easily and often, and in his laugh was a real human connection.

Malcolm described himself as “a farm boy from Tracy.” Lisa was from Stockton, and they would laugh about growing up in the valley. He often went back to Tracy to visit his family, and to his alma mater UC Davis.

Malcolm loved to ski—season pass at Heavenly, every year. He moved to Tahoe as a young man, and after selling hotel vacation packages and such, he built up his own business as an insurance broker, which was a challenge in a town divided by a state line with different regulations on each side. One thing was clear though: You needed a policy with coverage for helicopter rescue in case you’re ever injured on the mountain. Done.

malcolm

Malcolm and Cindy laughed at the fact that, as writers, Lisa and I worked in our robes all day. We gave each other leftovers. They looked after our place when we were away, and we did the same for them (one time I made a rookie mistake and almost let their pipes freeze).

For the first year living next to Malcolm and Cindy, the gentle silence of the meadow was often made more beautiful by the sound of them laughing on their back deck.

Then, like a storm coming in, everything changed. Cindy was diagnosed with cancer.

Malcolm tried to maintain his usual high spirits. For the first time, I heard them arguing next door. And I heard Cindy yell, “I’m dying! Okay? I’m dying.” And it was silent.

Cindy’s full name was Cinderella, and she collected books of the Cinderella story from all over the world. That summer my 11 year-old niece Crystal stayed with us for several weeks, and she and Cindy spent a lot of time together, both of them knowing and appreciating the different places they were in life.

That fall, Lisa and I were walking through the meadow, and I saw Cindy sitting by the stream staring at the water. I thought she was in state of reflective peace, so we kept walking. I was wrong. As we made our way down the meadow path, I heard her cry out.

But she kept living—in those few short months between her diagnosis and her death, she and Malcolm swam with dolphins, and he took her to the places she loved. Her body weakened. Soon she needed a wheelchair.

Malcolm told us that Cindy wanted to go to San Francisco to see Phantom of The Opera. After the show, they went back to their hotel room, and she died.

When Malcolm returned alone, he told me that when two people are in a hotel room and one of them dies, the law requires a homicide investigation. He had to sit and answer questions for hours. As I imagined how awful that must have been, Malcolm smiled and said it was all worth it to have Cindy go out the way she wanted—living.

The following year we moved back to San Francisco, but we stayed in touch. He came to our wedding. When Lisa and I joined hands and walked down the aisle, he leapt to his feet applauding, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Over the years, he bought every book of poetry Lisa published, and even sent signed copies to his young niece—an artist in his family who, Malcolm told us, played the harp beautifully.

Last year, Malcolm had to move off the hill. His lungs couldn’t get enough oxygen up there in those mountains he loved. He was separated from both Tahoe and Cindy. Perhaps it was no surprise he didn’t live much longer.

As a child, I watched Mr. Rogers, who always greeted me as a neighbor. A neighbor. What was it about that word that resonated so deeply and made my heart feel so warm and open? Thanks to Malcolm and Cindy, I know.

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