Moral Ambiguity

By: Julie Gamberg

My next-door neighbor has terminal brain cancer. When I hear him coughing, which is, intermittently, twenty-four hours a day, I imagine many a touching independent or foreign film in which two urban apartment neighbors who have never really met come together over something serious and profound and both of their lives are changed forever while a young child learns the values of compassion and overcoming social barriers to care for those in need. But instead, when we see each other in the hall or–cringe– in the elevator, it is incredibly awkward.

I should say, he has never actually told me he is dying of brain cancer. I learned it through someone else living in the building, and then from his girlfriend as she was moving out because she “can’t handle it,” she told me. I also want to say he has always been very reserved, at least to me. Once, when my toddler wandered out of my apartment and into theirs in a never before or since seen moment of both doors being open at once, I went to get her and found him and his girlfriend in an intimate embrace right inside the door. Their faces looked pained and deeply sad. He shot me a look that was hard to read, but it seemed to be a combination of annoyed, angry, and embarrassed, underlined with a polite butt-the-fuck-out. I took my daughter, mumbled an apology, and went back inside. This was the week before his girlfriend left, so hindsight puts such a lump in my throat at having witnessed what must have been a devastatingly difficult moment for them both.

When I think of the movie version of what could be, however, I imagine that my neighbor witnessing budding new life next door – a pregnancy, a birth, a little baby becoming a toddler –would be both difficult and somehow redemptive. That I would bring casseroles, and offer rides to the hospital and he would play with my daughter and derive some comfort from that. Maybe he would tell us something he’s never told anyone else, and I would encourage him to try something he’s always dreamed of. He would give my child a small stone of special significance from some far-away place that she would treasure forever. Yet when I actually see him, I fear my daughter and I are an annoyance. That the loud message of life going on, of new life coming to take the place of the lives which are gone, is a painful sight, and that if he had his druthers, he would not be dying, a middle-aged black man, in a one-bedroom apartment, next door to a single white mom and her baby.

I feel such pains over this alienation and isolation. Over our urban condition. I would like some way to be there for him that doesn’t fill me and him with such awkwardness that we are both, literally, shuffling a bit. I was in my same apartment when I went into labor, alone, and it was an extremely fast and painful labor. I was screaming uncontrollably and in between screams, my first and foremost wish was that no one, no stranger who doesn’t even know my name, who will undoubtedly say and do the most very wrong things, that no one from the building, would come to my door. So I understand what he might be feeling. That I might be the most wrong possible person to bring casseroles, to offer trips to the hospital. And I also want to say, he is not alone. He has family and friends that come and visit him. I think one might be a grown child. I occasionally hear an “I love you,” as someone is leaving. I do not want to say, “I’d probably be in the way anyway,” as an excuse. Yet I fear that might be the case. That for him to share such intimacy, such heartache, with a stranger who he would have to continue to see every day would be incredibly painful. I wonder and wonder about this now especially, because it’s not just me. I’m modeling all the time for my child how to be in the world. I dread the day that my neighbor will no longer be there. That ambulances will come in the night, or that his family will escort him out, or that they will find him there. There is a moral reckoning that I don’t want to save for that day. I want to do it now. I want to make conscious choices about how I behave because I want to create, as much as I am able, the world that looks like the one I want for my child. Yet as much as I imagine myself reaching out, as much as I’m the type of person who would reach out, somehow I always stop short.


  1. says

    What a very sad situation. I had a young couple with a young son move into our neighborhood and it was soon recognized that the husband was very sick (34) and was dying. I befriended this neighbor by just asking if there was anything I could do as he was getting sicker and she worked as did he until he couldn’t get off the bed. I encouraged her to let me help as I was home all day working and I could be at her house in under 30 seconds. I started to hang out with her and her husband and soon was invited to help him refresh his water and eventually won his heart as he did mine and when he called me to come quick as he needed something I was on it. He died within a year and half of my knowing him. I was so glad they let me help. I hope you find a way to just be around and explain to him that you are available. Death is a natural progression of life but not for someone so young. I found it was as rewarding to me to help as it was for him to feel someone was there when his wife couldn’t be. Or just someone to talk to. Modeling is the best way in my mind that empathy is learned. Sad story today Julie.

  2. V says

    Great, thoughtful story. Maybe just asking the next time you see him to let you know if he there’s anything he ever needs, to let you know “because you work from home sometimes.” He might not ever take you up on it but you’ll know that you offered. If you see later that he has trouble walking, you might offer to take the trash down for him. Little things.

    You have a great heart, Julie.

  3. says

    Really beautiful and honest piece, Julie. I do love that this is such a complex situation, and you really do it justice… your desire to be there and be helpful and reach out and your desire to give him space and peace. Who knows what is best? For what it’s worth, when my father (not a stranger) was dying I drove 300 miles each way every single weekend for 3 months to spend time with him, and when he was in the hospital for 21 days I sat for long hours by his side every single day. But we never talked about the cancer. And we never talked about how sick he was. And we never talked about whether he needed help. He and I both got comfort from me just sitting and watching TV with him. Everyone else he knew who came to visit wanted to ask how he was and bring him things to make him feel taken care of. My father was a strong, independent man who didn’t want to be reminded that he was no longer strong and independent. With a stranger, I’m sure it would be much more ambiguous as to whether or not you could “help.” Rather than cooking for him, could you say “hey, I’m running to the grocery store and I just thought I’d check if you needed anything while I’m there?” or could you invite him to your house for dinner? I like V’s suggestions, and I agree. You have a great heart.

  4. Cn le says

    My mother died of cancer when I was 21 and still living at home. I did wonder fleetingly how the neighbors must have felt. However, we lived in the suburbs and we were more than aquaintanves but less than friends. I say, when that moment comes and the flashing lights of the ambulance invite themselves into your daughter’s world–just let her feel. And yeah, I’m sure that will be awkward too. Life is full of awkward events whose significance justifies it’s emotional innocence over time

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