The Wages of Kindness

In 1981 I had a neighbor who, while she was friendly enough, always seemed to keep a certain distance. When asked about that, she said she had a rule never to get too close to her neighbors.

One evening I met her coming home, and I saw that something was very wrong. She said her cat, who had been the only constant in her life for eight years, through two failed marriages and other personal crises, had been diagnosed with leukemia. She was devastated.

We talked for hours as she came to terms with having the cat put down. The next morning she knocked on my door. Tears rolling down her face, holding a box containing the remains of her cat, she asked me to help her bury it.

We went to a far corner of the yard, and I dug a hole into which I placed the cat. I gently coaxed her into throwing in the first shovelful of dirt, after which she went inside while I finished.

When I came in, she was sitting at her dining room table crying quietly. I knelt silently next to her and put my arms around her. We hugged and cried together for a long time. All she could say was how sorry she was to have dragged me into her grief. I tried to explain how unspeakably grateful I was for the privilege of being there for her, sharing these deep and genuine feelings, but she didn’t seem to understand. I wonder often if she ever has.

That night I wrote a poem for her, the last lines of which read:

And even as I stroll
through the garden of your soul
I will not crush
a single flower.

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