“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” —Brene Brown
It was the middle of August and the middle of the day. The sun was shining bright, the dog lay panting on the cool tile floor, and I was chopping watermelon in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. I peeked around the corner and was surprised to see my neighbor standing on the front porch. He was a tiny man--probably only ninety pounds dripping wet with a shock of white hair, his shoulders hunched over by life—who lived two doors down in an equally tiny, slightly hunched over white clapboard house sitting in the middle of a postage-stamp sized yard. Over the years I would see him out with his reel lawn mower or red-handled snow shovel early in the morning or late in the evening and once in a blue moon I’d get a daytime sighting as he carried a bag of groceries in from the rusty ‘70s-era Chevy Caprice parked on the pea gravel drive next to his house. Whenever I saw him, I’d wave and say ‘hello.’ Whenever he saw me (or anyone else, for that matter) he would scurry into the house like a rabbit and wait until the coast was clear before coming back out to finish what he’d started. It went on like that for thirteen years…and now he was standing on my front porch ringing the doorbell. I didn’t even know his name.
I wiped my hands, walked to the the door and opened it with a hesitant “Hello,” curious to know what landed him here after more than a decade of avoiding me like the plague. “Hello,” he answered quietly while staring at his feet. We stood there for a long time in silence before he looked up and off in the distance, his voice shaking a little. “I’m John. I live over there,” he shared, nodding toward his house. “I’m wondering about your cat—the yellow and white one. I haven’t seen her lately and I hope she’s OK.”
Unfortunately, the cat he was asking about was not OK. Three weeks earlier while I was out of town at a conference, Sunshine-the-cat had been hit by a car in front of the house and died. As I told John the details of what had happened, his clear blue eyes filled with tears and his already stooped posture sunk a little lower. “Do you want to come in?” I asked. “Sure. But just for a minute…” He perched himself on the edge of the chair closest to the door and let the tears fall, not scurrying anywhere for a moment.
“She sure was a great cat,” he finally said, pulling a threadbare blue hanky out of his back pants pocket to wipe his nose. “Rain or shine, she’d show up at my kitchen door almost every day and let out a loud meow. If I didn’t open the door right away, she’d hop up on the windowsill and tap with that deformed paw of hers.” He paused to blow and wipe again and chuckled. “We had this routine,” he said, looking at the hanky in his hands as he talked. “I’d let her into the kitchen, open a can of tuna, and put on some jazz…sometimes some blues. When she was done eating we’d sit on the couch together and I’d tell her what to listen for: the rhythm, the melody, the lyrics. Sometimes I’d even give her a little history on the musicians. She’d just listen…” He shook his head and smiled. “After an hour or two, she’d head to the door. I’d open it up for her, say ‘See you tomorrow…’ and then watch her head home across the yard. I wanted to be sure she made it OK, you know.” He looked out the window at the yard and sighed, tears filling his eyes again. “Since I haven’t seen her for awhile I thought maybe something had happened….” And then he looked right at me for the first time and said, “What was her name? I never knew…”
“Sunshine,” I whispered, barely able to get the words out as the tears spilled down my face. Here I thought that she spent her afternoons hunting mice in the back shed or lazing in the yard under the walnut tree. I had no idea that she had this whole other life just two doors down.
“Sunshine,” he smiled. “She sure was. Yes, she was…” He stood up and patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry about your cat. I won’t bother you anymore...” And off he went: across the yard to his tiny little house, all alone.
Two days later, John was standing on my front porch when I came home from work. He looked sheepish—I don’t think he planned on seeing me—and turned down my invitation to come in. He said he was just stopping by to drop off a little something: a CD he’d burned for me. “These were her favorites. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davis…I would have included Wynton Marsalis on there, too—we listened to him a lot—but she really preferred the oldies. I hope you like it.” I did like it. A lot.
As far as I know, John didn’t ever wander back onto my front porch. And I never made my way to his kitchen door. But from that day on, we’d smile and wave a few times a week when we saw each other out in the yard and even stop to chat now and again about the weather, the happenings in the neighborhood, and about jazz. It made us both smile.