June 21st, 2009
Susan George is gone. I don’t know if she’s dead or if she was taken somewhere, but she’s gone. Susan was my neighbor. I met her in November of last year when we first moved in. She watched from her back porch as we loaded in furniture and boxes and placed Esther’s bicycle and outdoor toys by the towering tree in our common yard.
Sometime in the afternoon of our move-in day, she stopped by and introduced herself. She told me her name was Susan. She looked at the bike and toys and asked if we had a boy or a girl. I told her about Esther and she smiled saying she hoped I’d bring her by one day so she could meet her. Before heading back to her apartment she told me to please let her know if there was anything she could do for us. She was neighborly like that.
It made me so happy to meet her. I didn’t know then just how old she was, but was told later in the week by the neighbor who lives in between us that she was 102. I couldn’t fathom it. She was more lucid than my 78 year old mother, and more agile that most 60 year olds. Wow. 102. I told my husband over dinner and we were incredulous together.
The next time I saw her was in December. She had just returned from taking out her garbage and was beginning her morning ritual of watering the plants on her back porch. She was a spry thing; up early taking care of things. I was trying to organize some stuff on our back porch and she wandered over. She told me the small wispy stalks in our own undeveloped little patch of dirt were actually seedlings from the giant Pepper tree that towered over us and that we’d better get them removed or they’d grow into full fledged trees before too long. She then said she remembered when the big Pepper tree was that size. I asked her how long she’d lived here at Park La Brea and she told me 47 years. Wow. That’s how old I am. She had lived in this little one bedroom apartment on Burnside Ave. as long as I’d been alive. I asked if she had any family and she shook her head no. She’d never married, never had kids, and everyone else in her family – siblings and parents – had passed on a long time ago. I wondered just how long she’d been alone in this world, but I didn’t ask. I never saw friends over at her house and well, any of her close friends had to have passed long ago too. I got an empty, sad sort of feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought to myself, I have got to have this woman over for tea and pie or something. I figured anyone who had lived that long has got some interesting stories and would probably like to tell some of them again. For a reason I couldn’t quite articulate, I just wanted to sit with her at my kitchen table. I suppose somewhere in there I was projecting my own loneliness onto her, but who cares the reason. She was my neighbor and I ought to get to know her.
Christmas and the New Year came and went, as did a spot of cold, rainy weather. Everyone got sick at our house, so we’d pretty much been laid out for the whole holiday season. I got really busy with work after the 1st of the year and the couple of times I saw Susan I was rushing to my car. I would wave and think to myself I have got to have her over, or go take her some mulch for her plants. She had told me back in November she needed some and I couldn’t imagine how she might get to a gardening store.
I don’t know why but I found myself paying particular attention to Susan’s back door one day last week. I was standing on my porch smoking an illicit cigarette in the late morning, and my eyes wandered over. There was a note on Susan’s door. I walked over to her back porch landing and peered closely through the screen door to read it: Estate Sale. May 8,9. Everything must go. Artwork, clothes, furniture. Free stuff. 393 Burnside Avenue. That was her address. Oh my god. I had a terrible hope that she might startle me by pulling back the mini blinds on the door with her arthritic hands and flashing her grey, horsey teeth at me. But it didn’t happen. The plants on her porch were brown and withered, except for the fake calla lilies she kept in a big green pot in the corner close to the window. She had loved this one other plant, which she earlier confessed with great pride, was a weed. It had grown right out of a crack in the concrete and she nurtured it to life. I remembered telling her a weed is anything you don’t want in your garden, so if she liked this plant she didn’t have to call it a weed anymore. She must be gone, because even her precious weed was dry and lifeless. I felt a cold breeze float across my arms and travel up my spine, and the dried leaves of Susan’s plants sounded like the quiet crackling of Rice Crispies in milk. The smoke from my cigarette gave the air an old dusty smell, and I thought about putting it out, but didn’t. Ash flew off the tip and dusted the sleeve of my black t-shirt. There was nothing on her porch but berries and leaves from the tree branches that hung above, and Susan’s plants; no patio furniture, no place to sit down. Maybe Susan never sat down. Maybe that’s what kept her alive for so long. She was always busy, taking care of things… Maybe that’s what happened last week. Maybe she sat down for a rest. I wonder if she knew it would be eternal. My cigarette burned down to the butt and I tossed it away from Susan’s porch.
I don’t know why I never had her over for tea and pie, but I know I should have. I know better at my age. At 47 I know time passes too quickly, and when you’re 102 there is no more time. No more time to put off ‘til tomorrow what might please you or make someone else happy now. I should’ve stopped for 30 minutes and just invited her in. I sometimes think that doing so might’ve alleviated some of her loneliness. But if I’m really honest, I think it would’ve alleviated some of mine.
I’m writing this for you Susan. I imagine you finally reunited with all those who loved you over your long life, and it makes me smile a little bit. I will remember you Susan George, and I hope one day we’ll meet again. I promise I’ll invite you in. We’ll have a nice long chat over a cup of Earl Grey and a slice of cherry pie.