For more than a year, I had put off meeting my neighbor. An 8-foot tall fence as imposing on a miniature scale as the Berlin Wall had divided our small lawns since I had moved in two Decembers before.
I had faced out onto the worlds of other neighbors long before I met her, already having watched six seasons pass as these individuals, whose sidewalks intersected with mine, zigzagged across their lawns behind lawnmowers, put out the trash, rushed off to work and to school as light still just hinted at illuminating the day.
I had heard that the woman behind the fence had had leukemia. I had heard that it had gone into remission. For this I felt a sense of relief, although she remained a faceless entity to me.
Still, it was not her illness that prevented me from crossing the mere 10 yards to her house, but the seeming impenetrability of the 30-foot long gray fence that separated our homes and our worlds.
If my neighbor's cancer had gone into remission, I reasoned, then all was well. There would be time to meet -- after the decrepit shed was moved, after the washing machine was replaced, after the opossums were trapped and moved out of the basement.
At some point, I would defy the fence that tilted forward in a vaguely threatening manner. I would take the 50 steps necessary to knock on my neighbor's door and say hello.
It was the routine task of putting out a bag brimming with recyclables that alerted me that all was not well. A tiny silver-haired woman was attempting to exit her car at the end of the fence. She awkwardly danced around our trash. I asked her if she was a friend of my neighbor's.
"No," she said flatly. "I am her mother."
"I hear she is doing better now," I said referring to the remission.
"She is not."
My neighbor's leukemia had returned. The eyes of this mother revealed a world in collapse. She lived just two blocks away. She had walked her daughter 50 years before to the elementary school just three blocks away.
"I am 85 years old," she said vacantly. "No parent wants to live beyond the time of her children. I do believe in miracles, but at this point we are in a waiting game."
It was time to go over. It was time to defy the fence. It was the wrong time, yes. But time itself was in question. It was time to say hello and goodbye.
I bought a large batch of blood-red alstroemeria and walked around the fence. I was greeted by the silver-haired mother with the vacant eyes.
My neighbor lay on a living room sofa. Oxygen tubes probed their way up her nostrils.
"Oh, this is the neighbor I had not met," she said with a faint smile, her eyes growing large and warm.
She had a long delicate face, a face made thinner by taxing chemotherapy. It seemed a face I had seen before on one of the elongated angels in the Renaissance paintings by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.
This was the brief moment we had to share, each finally putting a face on our neighbor. We talked about her work in education, her love of this neighborhood, her three children. We had about 30 minutes alone before she closed her eyes, clearly exhausted from the talking.
And then we got serious.
"I have had such a wonderful life," she said a bit breathlessly. "And I have had six more months," she said, referring to the remission of the leukemia, "six more months to live and say goodbye."
She was strangely, beautifully, animated.
We had been holding hands as if we had known each other for many years. I asked quietly and inappropriately about alternative treatments.
"I have gotten a lot of advice. I am far along on this path now," she said. "I am moving along."
Clearly she was struggling to negotiate her way out of her body, moving from this world to another.
"You do not know what a powerhouse you have encountered today," whispered one of her friends I passed on my way out the door.
But I did know. It was perfectly clear. My neighbor had communicated to me that she was navigating new and unfamiliar ground, that she was on a different timeline from the one the rest of us follow when we get up in the morning, have our coffee and go about our business.
I had walked into a space fixed in neither time or eternity, a space filled with pain followed by discernment. My neighbor had graciously shared it with me. She had taught me about its inevitable place in her life and therefore in my own life.
She could have closed her door in exhaustion or defeat. She could have pushed out the stranger who took precious last moments of her life away from family and friends. Instead, she had opened the door and let me in.
And when I left her and turned the corner around the fence that had separated us, I felt I had known her for a very long time.