Life and Loss in the Neighborhood

Life and Loss in the Neighborhood



When my husband John and I moved into our condo nine years ago, one of the first people to learn our names was our seventy-something neighbor, Jack. Our son Brennan was just a toddler, and we hadn’t had time to make a single friend on our street when baby Liddy came along — with a whole host of medical challenges. Jack and his aging chocolate lab, Packie, were a bright spot in those long and difficult days.

Brennan loved dogs and would be first to spot Jack and Packie making their slow, shuffling way down our street or to hear Jack’s unmistakable voice calling out greetings to various neighbors and passersby. Brennan would sit right down on the sidewalk and Packie would lean into him for a hug. And I would get a few precious minutes of adult conversation about Jack’s winters in Florida, his most recent trip to Ireland or his victory in the 5k road races he still relished. “I came in first in my age group,” he’d laugh, having been the only person anywhere near his age who’d competed.

We kept our conversations light, but he must have seen how worn down I was feeling on the day he called out behind him, “You’re a good mother, Karen,” as he headed back to his apartment building, bringing tears to my ears.

As Liddy grew older, she went through a shy stage, taking cover behind me when people addressed her. Unlike other adults, Jack never pushed her to make conversation, but instead slipped her dog treats to win Packie’s affection, knowing that in doing so, he’d eventually win hers, too.

One day John opened the Boston Globe to a photo of Jack’s beaming smile. At age 77, he was about to run his 1000th road race. It did not surprise us to learn Jack was much beloved in the running community. More than a runner himself, he was every athlete’s best cheerleader. His second story porch gave him a view of anyone out for a jog. He started bellowing out hellos at about 5:30 every morning. His voice had a raw rasp to it — but it carried. I remember John shaking with laughter one morning before we were fully awake. “Jack’s back.”

That was a refrain heard around the neighborhood every March or April, when he and Packie returned from a few months in Florida – always in time to cheer on the runners for the Boston Marathon, which he’d competed in himself many times. “Jack’s back,” we would say. “It must be spring.”

My neighbor Tiffany and I took up running ourselves, and Jack was thrilled for us. His cheers bookended our early morning runs. “Go get ’em girls,” he’d shout when we started out, and when we came home he’d point dramatically at his watch and give us a thumbs up, or hold up five fingers and yell, “Did you make it to five?” Once he was already on the street when we were out and he spotted us first: “Hubba hubba,” he called to us, laughing.

When Packie died a few years ago, the whole neighborhood felt it. Brennan and Liddy were old enough to understand that Jack was grieving, despite his cheerful façade. When Jack finally decided he was ready to adopt another senior dog, his condo association refused to allow it, even after his doctor wrote to them that a dog’s companionship was important to Jack’s health. Ever tuned in to the world’s fairness, or lack of it, Liddy and Brennan were furious on Jack’s behalf. After that, Jack filled his pockets with dog biscuits that he offered to every dog in the neighborhood.

This past March, just after John mentioned that Jack would be returning soon, I was stunned to wake up to an email one morning from another friend and neighbor, John Corcoran, telling me Jack had died in Florida. He waited until we talked in person to tell me Jack had been hit by a car on the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day as crossed the street for Mass. He showed me a St. Patrick’s Day card he’d received days before in the mail. “Lucky to be here,” Jack had written. “See you soon.”

I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to Jack’s death. They knew he was getting on in years — they’d even asked once if Packie’s death meant Jack might die soon too. Like all kids, they process the happenings of the world in their own unscripted ways. But when I told them the news Brennan’s eyes went wide with tears before he retreated into silence, and Liddy cried and said, “I’m so mad.”

The ripple effects of Jack’s presence, his kindness, reached into their lives in real and meaningful ways. The first few times we passed his building after he died, Liddy shielded her eyes with her hand, a concrete demonstration of the way we feel in the face of loss, the difficulty we have confronting it face-to-face. “It’s not fair,” she said, speaking for all of us.

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A Yelper Spreads the Love

A Yelper Spreads the Love

By Bonnie J. Rough

BonnieRough1One midnight in late spring, when Dan and I had been married ten years and had grown a bit conscious of our sex life—was it spontaneous enough? Cooling off? Going completely dark?—a harsh yelping woke us up.

Owp, owp, owp.

I shook Dan’s shoulder. “What is that?”


The yelps sounded a little hoarse. I remembered when we had been newlyweds in Iowa and our neighbor had accidentally driven over her own silky white cat. The cat had died under the hostas in our yard, yelping hoarsely.

“Do you think our cat’s okay?” I whispered.

Owp. Owp. Owwwp.

“It’s just a dog,” Dan said, rolling back to sleep.

“That is not a dog,” I said with one ear trained on the sound. “Wait a sec,” I said, listening a little more. “Maybe it is a dog.”

Then a human tone crept in. Dan heard it too.

“Where is that coming from?” he asked, lifting his head from the pillow to echolocate. We live in a friendly and family-packed Seattle neighborhood, full of balance-bikes and front-yard vegetable gardens. Nobody has air conditioning, so we latch open our windows in decent weather and share sounds: dinner dishes clinking in the sink, babies fussing through bath time, the occasional gathering of families with organic juice boxes, growlers of local brew, and cedar-planked salmon. Everyday sounds, all of them.

Owp! Owp! Owwwp!

“It’s definitely not anyone nearby,” Dan finally said, perhaps unwilling to picture any of our docile neighbors in heat.

We listened again for a few minutes as the yelping went on. Finally, Dan shook his head. “Nope. That’s a dog,” he said, and went back to sleep.

But I knew he was wrong—it was sex. And I could not fall asleep so easily while unknown neighbors made noisy bacon, so I lay there listening. Gross! Loud! Impressive. Will it wake up the kids? I could not wipe the adolescent smile off my face.

A few weeks later, the day before my birthday, Dan and I busied ourselves in the backyard, spreading bark mulch, weeding and preparing for my own little party with growlers et cetera. Josie, our six-year-old, and Louisa, our two-year-old, both in brown pigtails, scampered around us in the grass with Ivy and Nora, their preschool-aged playmates from next door.

Owp. Owp. Owp.

Dan and I locked eyes in a stare that said: Definitely human.


For a moment, the children played on. The yelping took on a familiar hoarse quality, and now we could tell it was coming from the upper floor of the duplex behind our house. A newlywed couple lived there, with the perfect high angle to spot us through our bathroom window. (I opted to slink around like a hunchback rather than deal with window treatments.) Before getting married, the woman had lived in the apartment alone with her cat and a sewing machine in the window. One day, the sewing machine had disappeared and a soccer pennant became visible. I’d never met the woman, but I had spoken to her husband once, briefly, the day we had our backyard cedar cut down. I wanted permission from their landlord to also chop down a sick little birch leaning against our fence. The tenant heartily agreed that the birch was crappy, and passed along his landlord’s number, wishing me a nice afternoon.

OWP owp OWP! Now Dan doubled over and then stood up with his mouth wide open in a silent laugh. That set me off and both of us turned our backs on the playing children, convulsing with laughter. Dan actually slapped his knee.

Owp owp owp owp owp—Josie froze. Louisa looked at her.  Ivy and Nora stopped playing. I looked at Josie, who tilted her head and knitted her brow.

“What is that?” she asked.

Since Josie’s toddlerhood, Dan and I had been working together— talking, researching, reading—to shape ourselves into parents who would openly discuss sex and the body with our children at any age. After writing the story of my abortion in my first book and subsequently discovering that audiences always ask me the same question—”What if your daughters find out?”—I had come to see that the real trick was not going to be how to keep secrets from my children, but how to tell them everything in time. I was now at work on a new book, which I knew my girls might someday read, detailing plenty more pivotal moments from my life in a female body: puberty, sex, childbirth, transgressions, and the everyday exchanges which defined my culturally-female American upbringing. Day to day with the girls, Dan and I made sure to welcome body talk in our house. Without judgment, confusion or shame, we looked at books, diagrams, animals, and one another. So, as the yelper bugled across our backyard, we certainly could have told Josie the plain truth. She already had a vocabulary for this.

But we weren’t about to edify the neighbor children.

Josie gazed expectantly at me, waiting for an explanation. I couldn’t look at Dan. “Oh, Josie,” I said, unable to erase my too-big grin, “I guess somebody is just really excited.”

Owp! Owp! Owp!

“No,” Josie said, listening closely. “I know what that is.”

Now my eyes widened. Dan turned to look at our first-grader.

“That,” Josie said, “is definitely a dog.”

We exhaled as the kids went back to their play, serenaded by wolves. Grocery list in hand, I walked around to the front of the house. The yelping followed me, and I heard a male voice join in as I slid behind the wheel of our family wagon. Driving off with music throbbing a little too loud from my mom-mobile, I laughed again and shook my head. I had to admit that in the midst of our backyard hysterics, I had felt a pulse of excitement in my core.

It happened again the next afternoon, before guests arrived for my birthday party. As Dan and I bustled around arranging patio furniture and flowers and local charcuterie, neither of us could ignore the yelping. We kept accidentally making eye contact. And late that night, as I walked into the kitchen from the backyard with the last pile of dishes, Dan intercepted me by wrapping both hands around my leg—as high as they could go.

“You know what we need to do?” he asked.

“Window treatments?”

He shook his head. “We need to have a war.”


“A sex war,” he clarified. “With the neighbors. Like a battle of the bands.”

I agreed in principle at least, and followed my partner to the bedroom—where, although we enjoyed ourselves, it turned out that people with sleeping children do not yelp.

The next afternoon—as neighbors did yard work, couples walked retrievers, kids rode scooters—the newlyweds went at it once again. Their volume was impossible to miss.

“So,” I asked Gina with mock-casualness as we stood in our shared driveway. “Any thoughts on the new neighborhood soundtrack?” A pause. A blush? “Yeah, Tim told me about that,” she said as her husband slipped out of earshot and fired up the lawn mower. We exchanged grins, then quickly broke eye contact and changed the subject to our children.

Later that evening, after Dan’s basketball game, he stepped from the shower and sidled behind me as I brushed my teeth.

“It’s awful,” he said. “The neighbors are kind of turning me on.”

“Me too!” I said through toothpaste foam.

As much as Dan and I had been willing to talk with our children about sex, it seemed we had unwittingly, over time, begun to neglect our own sensuality. In more ways than I first realized, the yelper had woken us up.

In fact, it seemed possible that the busy couple had been lighting up the whole neighborhood. I wondered about the newlyweds’ downstairs neighbors, another young couple. Had they been triggered too? And it didn’t seem a stretch to suppose their next-door neighbors turned down the TV once or twice to let more interesting sounds stream in. Since my grocery run revealed that the noise carried across the avenue, I had to guess that the web developer who fed the crows after work and took his daughter to see harbor seals and photographed gardens on rainy days might have called his girlfriend in Illinois who wanted to move West but couldn’t quite, not yet. And maybe in the house with the blue door, the Canadian couple expecting their second baby while separated by thousands of miles from family support found themselves relaxing more easily. As for the brown pickup that pulled late into the dog-walker’s driveway two houses down—was it my imagination, or a good old-fashioned booty call? John, our lean and silver-haired next-door neighbor to the south, had peered from his side window during one especially high-pitched twilight session, presumably to investigate whether the sounds were coming from my house. He got his answer when he spotted me crouching at my back fence, eavesdropping with my blue-glowing iPhone allowing my sister and her husband to listen in from across town. I waved weakly, freed from one kind of culpability, pinned with another. John lowered the blinds, but left his window open. Suggestion was everywhere, and through my embarrassment, I surmised that after years of marriage and unkind illness, he and his wife were coming together, too.

I tapped my toothbrush on the sink and turned to look at my beautiful dripping husband, his body sleek and muscled, his beard silver and black, his ochre-flecked eyes asking for me. I loved that our bodies responded to that little primal scream in the air, and that we found each other so agreeably. After years spent ruminating on gender, sex and desire, it made me happiest, just then, to see myself as one simple beast in the big rutting herd: earnest, predictable, and beyond reproach. Climbing under the sheets, I realized that the yelper had generously spread not only her legs, but also a gift. I pictured it then, rippling around the neighborhood like The Wave in a stadium, or like electricity after an outage.

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. She lives in Seattle, where she is at work on her next nonfiction book. Her website is

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Fish Stuff

Fish Stuff

By Sarah Degner Riveros

betasWe had company today, our neighbors and their three kids. They showed up unannounced. We were doing what we usually do on a Saturday, making messes and not cleaning them up. We had a fort built out of two armchairs and two crib mattresses gracing the living room, with a happy kid perched on top like a pirate.

Our uninvited guests dragged garbage bags full of clothing that they wanted to get rid of. We welcomed them in. We can use hand-me-downs in all sizes and shapes and everyone knows it.

As I offered to make some tea, my neighbors’ younger daughter checked out our trashed playroom. And then called, “Mom, come see the fish!”

The mom raced down the hallway to see the fish. She is that kind of mother. The fish-viewing lasted about three seconds. She bolted back out to the living room, where I was nursing the baby and trying to convince my older child to serve the gingerbread, which was made with barley malt instead of honey because that’s what we had on hand.

“When was the last time you cleaned the fish tank?” the neighbor whispered. “My daughter cleans the tank,” I said. “Maybe about a month ago. Is he dead?”

She raised her eyebrows. “I have two fish and I love interacting with them,” she said. Even though I was nursing and the oxytocin love and peace hormone was flowing, I became defensive.

“I’ve researched fish. I understand them,” she said.

Great, I thought, I was dealing with a fish whisperer.

“Fish thrive on constant interaction,” she said. She barely needed to point out to me that her fish swim right up to the side of the tank whenever they see her.

I did not doubt the validity of her playtime with her Betta fish. If I had heeded the advice of my therapist of the past three years for one moment, I would have asked a sympathetic question. Something along the lines of, “Do your fish have names?” But instead, I sat there stunned, and said, “This is our third Betta fish, and each of our first two Bettas has lived at least four years.” She was unmoved. She told me that according to her research, Betta fish need five full gallons and their water must be changed weekly. She pointed out that the little fuzzy balls on the bottom of our tank were probably feces. I neglected to share that our toddler sometimes over-feeds the fish, and the little food balls disintegrate and can be mistaken easily for other things. She swung her hair back and forth, her face red, appalled that the five-gallon tank only had three inches of water in the bottom.

There is a reason that we have one Betta fish and not, say, three cats or a dog. I throw all my energy, money, time, and love at my kids. And, I had, in fact, consulted my own fish expert—my best friend from high school—when we purchased the little fellows. She is a very clean person. Too clean, in fact. “I cleaned the fish tank so often our fish died within weeks,” she had said.

I’d also done research on the Internet, and now knew that Betta fish are a breed of Japanese puddle fish. They live in muddy puddles, which was a major influencing factor in our decision to purchase our first Betta back in 2003, because we were as good at creating and maintaining muddy puddles then as we are now.

I went on defending my fish-care practices. “My Betta fish always live for four years,” I said, then suddenly waved my hand at my living room. “In our modern society, many people believe that a healthy home must be immaculate. Like a magazine.” I could not stop myself. “Obviously, I do not believe in cleaning. Exhibit A: My living room.” She stared politely at the living room, where my toddler was stooping to pick up a half-eaten rice cake off the floor and stuffing it into his snotty face.

When she left I was certain she’d go home and change her two fishes’ tanks that night, after she was done sterilizing her three cats’ paws with some hand sanitizer, just for good measure. But I will sleep well tonight, knowing that the care and feeding of Betta fish is one area where I feel quite secure. I know my fish shit.

Sarah Degner Riveros mothers a biracial blended family of four in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago.

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