53: Six Words

53: Six Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Six Words

The walls we build around us to keep sadness out also keep out the joy.

~Jim Rohn

We had six words in common, but somehow we built a friendship on them. I was a twenty-something struggling artist, barely making rent. David and his wife, Sonia, were in their seventies, immigrants who had been brought over by their children a decade before. In a heavily Russian subsection of West Hollywood, the three of us shared a sunburst-colored apartment building with a struggling actor, a surf-loving drummer, and a sad-eyed boy who had grown up in the Children of God cult and now worked at The Whisky on Sunset Boulevard.

David spent most of his time standing on the slightly elevated concrete slab that served as a courtyard, watching the neighborhood go by. He greeted me at the same spot nearly every morning, often pointing out various things around the block, accompanied by long explanations I had no hope of understanding. His wife, sick with diabetes, spent days in a hospital bed pushed against their living room window. Some nights I’d arrive home to find David reeking of vodka. He would smile sadly at me, mumble, “Sonia, no good.” Neither one of us thought she had much time left, but she hung on for three more years.

When Sonia finally did pass, I was back east for the Christmas holidays. My roommate called late one night and said they’d tried to revive her on the living room floor while David watched quietly from the side. A few days later, a very young (and very close) friend of my family’s was killed in a freak accident. As I walked numbly through the funeral procession, I found myself thinking of David and how strange it was our fates had suddenly taken such parallel paths.

I arrived back in Los Angeles several days after New Year’s and found David in his usual place, dressed in black now, smoking a cigarette. He threw his arms around me as soon as I was close enough to reach. I cried and spoke soft platitudes that needed no translation. He nodded, but said nothing. I wanted so much to tell him of my friend, to let him know I understood that something was missing now, that Death had touched me too. I couldn’t though; neither one of us had the words.

For several weeks, David remained in black, receiving visitors at his perch. The older women came to cook and clean, the older men to drink vodka and smoke. I watched it all from my balcony, feeling lost and alone, sad at my friend’s passing, as David did the same from his. It wasn’t getting easier, and I started to wonder if something had permanently broken, disabling me from continuing here.

Then one afternoon, six or seven months later, I was sweeping my balcony when I caught sight of David, shuffling across our street in a newly ironed suit with a small bouquet of flowers behind his back. He made his way up the stairs of the adjacent building, where one of the old Russian women who had been visiting him regularly lived with her son and two grandchildren. He rang the doorbell, and a minute later she emerged in a flowery dress, her hair neatly tied behind her ears. She accepted the flowers (with a giggle) and the two of them made their way down the street.

Broom still in mid-sweep, I stared blankly ahead, trying to process what I had just seen. This man, after watching his wife of 40 years linger with illness and expire before him, after being hobbled himself, unable to do much more than watch as the world went by, had somehow found life again. What had I done at 28, healthy, vibrant, the world at my feet?

A few weeks later, I followed up with a man who had asked me out several times over the previous year. I’d been annoyed at his upbeat persistence, preferring my own misery to company, but now I discovered a new faith in such acts of courage. It proved an auspicious move, and within six months I was moving out of my West Hollywood hovel and into a whole new life with him.

After the apartment had been cleared, I went back hoping to see David one last time. I found him, as always, leaning over the gate, peering down the sidewalk. He knew why I was there and he opened his arms, welcoming me. I stepped willingly into his embrace. I loved this man and knew I would not see him again. He was going to die here, as his wife had done, and I had so much yet to do. I pulled back, fighting emotion, and he patted me warmly on the shoulder, pointed and said, “Daughter,” then touched his chest.

“Daughter.” I nodded. One of six words between us, and it was, as it had always been, enough.

~Brigitte Hales

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