The operative word is neighbor

“Someone died here today.”


I wonder if I’ve heard correctly. It’s awkward, unsettling somehow, hearing the old woman who lives next door to you talk about dying while you’re sitting by her bedside in a hospital room at Cedar Sinai. Margaret, 86, is sitting up, a couple of bright white pillows behind her, a tray table straddling her bed. I look out the hospital room door half expecting to see a gurney with a sheeted figure rolling by. 

“On this floor. Someone died on this floor.” Margaret looks at the open door too. “The nurse told me most of the patients on this floor have brain or spine injuries.”

As if that answers it. She, Margaret, doesn’t have a brain injury, that’s for sure. She has–or had–colon cancer and she’s been in the hospital for a few days now, recovering from major surgery. A colectomy.

Earlier this summer, her doctor, worried that she’s anemic, sent her for a colonoscopy. It falls to me, her next door neighbor, to give her a ride. Full of energy, Margaret says she doesn’t feel anemic. She doesn’t look it. The no-nonsense type, Margaret just goes about her business; up at dawn sweeping the sidewalk in front of our apartment building, looking after her garden—and mine—watering, weeding. She takes a mile long walk with her dog around the neighborhood everyday, pushes her shopping cart the three quarters of a mile to the grocery store and back once a week, chats cheerfully with the clerks, the maintenance men, the musician who plays for dollar bills outside the nearby La Brea Tar Pits museum. Most afternoons she listens to music and reads the newspaper. At four pm she walks Dilly up to the circle where there’s a small park and playground. They sit for half an hour watching the children play and the cars go by. Around 6 pm she treats her little dog to a tiny bite of people food before she puts down the Dilly’s dry food, and eats her own supper, a piece of chicken or fish she’s cooked for dinner, a serving of vegetables, a little rice or potato. After dinner, she does a word search puzzle, settles in for Jeopardy. Margaret is as proud as I am when she gets the Final Jeopardy question right and the contestants get it wrong. At nine she takes the dog out to do her final business of the day, usually she’s in bed by 9:30 or ten. Every year or so she flies home to England to visit her sister and her family for a few weeks.

Margaret loves her life but when the doctor tells her the colonoscopy reveals she has colon cancer she doesn’t pause for a second. She’s adamant: no chemo for her. The doctor nods, lips compressed. And suggests surgery may take care of it. I’ve been driving her to and from various doctors’ offices for the last few weeks. Not because we’re special friends but because we’re neighbors and there’s no one else. She and her husband didn’t have kids, her remaining family is back in England, most of her friends are dead. If she were my mother, I’d hope someone would look in on her, which is silly as my mother had us, my brother, sister and me, to watch over her, but you get the drift.

Besides the colon cancer, a scan has revealed a cyst on her ovaries so she was referred to a gynecologist to determine its’ seriousness. Her primary care doctor needs to be sure she’s generally healthy enough for surgery. She takes me along to her consultations and the doctors shake my hand, thank me for coming, including me in the conversation. Embarrassed, I avert my eyes when I sense the doctors and nurses talking more to me than to her, as if I’m more able to understand their medical jargon than her, but I’m not.  My averted eyes are meant to silently remind them that I’m just a bystander. Margaret is the patient. She’s in charge. Will the presence of the cyst interfere with the partial colectomy? If it’s cancerous too, can surgery remedy it? Should they take it out at the same time? These are all considerations. That and her advanced age. It’s better to remove the cyst at the same time as they do the colectomy, isn’t it? It’s small, the doctor tells, showing us both his baby fingernail. ‘My part’s easy’ he says. What’s left unsaid is the remainder. How does an 86 year old woman respond to an operation removing a chunk of her colon? How well will her body heal?

At first Margaret balks at the idea of surgery but finally agrees to go ahead. It will be done and over with. Or over with. It’s surgery, she is given to understand or the odds are very much not in her favor.

I take her in for the operation early in the morning, setting my alarm for 5:00 am so I have time to wake up over a cup of coffee first. I sit in the waiting room while they prep her, a nurse pops out to say I can go in and keep her company until they take her into surgery. I’m not sure how I got in so deep, but here I am, feeling a bit like the daughter she never had and paradoxically a next door neighbor who really doesn’t know her all that well.

Inside the pre-op suite I’m dazzled by the sea of greens and blues of the team of doctors and interns milling around, styrofoam coffee cups in hand, conversing with hushed voices. I scan the crowd hunting for yawns and other signs of exhaustion. I recognize the gynecological surgeon who’s taking out her cyst, the young Asian American doctor who nods and smiles over his glasses. Dr. Patel, the doctor performing the colonoscopy stops by and assures Margaret everything is on track. Shouldn’t take more than three hours. An intern promises that she and Margaret are going to see a lot of each other over the next few days. A swirl of nurses hovers by the gurney, checking her vitals again, explaining again that it will just be a little longer. 

One of the nurses takes my number to call me when Margaret’s in recovery. Unless I plan on staying in the waiting room until the three hour procedure is finished? No, I tell them. I live ten minutes from the hospital. I’ll go home to wait. I feel guilty that I’m not staying in the waiting room. I’m not her daughter, I want to tell them. I’m not any kind of relative. I’m not even a friend, not really.


I go back a little early, carrying a white orchid from Trader Joe’s. I think how awful it would feel to come out of surgery and for there to be no one, beyond the doctors and nurses, no familiar face there to greet you. Like when you land at an airport and all the faces waiting around the arrival gate are for other people. It’s not as though you expected anyone to be there waiting for you with a big goofy grin. Your car is parked in Lot C or you’re renting a vehicle. You’re an adult, you can come and go without fanfare. But still. No one being there highlights your essential aloneness. 

“Can I help you?’’ the hospital volunteer asks when I set the plant down on the desk outside the recovery area. 

“Yes, I’m here to see Margaret Beecham.’’ Am I just being neighborly or somewhere along the line has the old woman who lives next door become a friend?

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