Most people seem blissfully unaware of the silent language of open doorways.
Though we see them and use them every day as we go about our busy mundane lives, we are impervious to what they have to say. To most people, doorways are portals to the outside world — not the quiet messengers and conveyors of important events which they often are.
It was through an open doorway that I first met my good neighbor Connie in the summer of 2003. It happened as I was having a bang-up time trying to park the tail end of a U-Haul truck against the front porch of my new apartment building in Boston. There were exactly two concrete steps and a wooden deck with chipped blue paint to reach the doorway, but they all seemed a mile away in my rear-view mirror. I just couldn’t get the truck to line up.
Finally I gave up and parked the U-Haul at a weird angle facing the steps. I got out of the truck and went to the back.
“Do you need any help?” a woman said in a genial voice as I rolled open the truck door and unloaded the steel ramp.
Connie stood in the doorway sporting a beige sundress and comfortable slip-on shoes. She was a petite woman in her early sixties, with silver flecked dark hair and a wide face with high cheekbones and friendly, deep-set eyes. Pinched between her right thumb and forefinger was a lit cigarette.
Even outside in the open air, the smell of burning tobacco made me queasy. I never liked cigarette smoke, for that reason.
Connie seemed amused and perplexed by my unorthodox parking skills. I glanced inside the U-Haul and sighed.
“Nah, that’s OK. I think I can handle it,” I said and smiled. She stepped aside and held open the front door. I began moving in, small things first.
Connie recently had arrived in Boston after a long career in social work in southern California. It had been her life’s mission there, looking after society’s most vulnerable — unfortunate outcasts, who manage to survive in the richest state in the country. When her son suddenly fell ill she gave up everything to be with him in Boston.
The old three-story tenement house where we all lived stood in the middle of a working class neighborhood at the summit of a granite hill. The house had two apartments on each floor. The attic windows looked like two dark sinister eyes that reminded me of the house in “The Amityville Horror.” There was something so melancholy about this place. I couldn’t figure it out at first.
Connie and I soon became good first-floor neighbors and friends on the fly: we were always coming and going at the same time. She was airy and pleasant and loved to share small talk every time our paths crossed in the foyer. Most of the time, she had a smoldering cigarette between her fingers.
Every year at Christmas Connie would surprise me with a gift bag of shortbread cookies and a card that she would leave outside my door. The cookies had red and green sugar crystals sprinkled on top and were always delicious. It was after Christmas that I noticed Connie had developed a hacking cough. I attributed it to her pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Cigarettes, she confessed to me, had been her one vice since she was a teenager. She was addicted to them, loved their menthol taste, the slow, soothing effect of nicotine — as much as she loved California sunshine and instant coffee in the morning.
The majority of the tenants smoked cigarettes and had other “issues.” One had a drug problem and dealt drugs to support his habit. Round and round the cycle went, interrupted only by the frequent overdoses.
Another tenant had liver disease. And another was described to me as a pathological hoarder who collected newspapers — in piles, then in stacks. The stacks grew higher and higher, forming towers, walls and passageways. Finally, the incendiary hoard threatened to burn the house down with the slightest spark.
The tenant was given a month to clean out the place, and did.
The cigarette smoke that permeated the house was a different species of tenant altogether, one that had no personal boundaries or social etiquette. Like an uninvited guest it wafted quietly up, down and around the house, drifting across forbidden spaces, through hidden crannies and openings — malignant wisps of poison, coming together as smog in the common areas.
During winter the second-hand smoke invaded my apartment through the heating vents and every winter I considered moving. Inertia, and the lack of money, would always hold me back.
Connie knew that cigarettes bothered me and did her best to contain the smoke in her son’s apartment. But the smoke turned out to be one clever prisoner that always found a way out.
When I hadn’t seen Connie in nearly a month I asked her son how she was doing. I wasn’t too surprised when he told me an X-Ray had found a dark spot on her lung — cancer — aggressive, and inoperable. She would be given chemotherapy and then radiation if the chemicals didn’t work.
“Does the prognosis look good?” I asked.
He closed his eyes, shook his head and bit his lower lip.
“Not good,” he said.
The next time I saw Connie she was wearing a blue bandana to cover her head because the chemotherapy had made all her hair fall out. She looked ten years older. Her voice rose barely above a whisper. It was painful to see what the treatments had done to her.
Fortunately for Connie, she had already quit smoking. Cold turkey.
When her cancer went into a brief remission Connie had a fragile sense of hope that she might actually recover. She was determined to get well in spite of the statistics — to get back to living and helping others who needed her — no matter how bad she looked or felt.
Then I saw Connie one afternoon in the foyer. She was angrily sweeping up dust into a pan. She said the grimy particles had gotten into her son’s apartment and were making her throat and lungs sore.
"This is awful — terrible. How do I get rid of it?” she said.
I had an idea. I decided to keep it to myself.
Later that afternoon I went to the hardware store and bought an air purifier and gave it to Connie. She broke into tears and threw her frail arms around me. Her body felt almost weightless, like soft balsa wood against my chest.
Connie set up the air purifier in her bedroom and for a while she was able to breathe and sleep more easily. Eventually, her health began to decline and she became anxious and consumed with thoughts of dying. Her doctor prescribed medicine for her panic attacks after her new prognosis.
Connie had only six months to live.
Connie went into seclusion at that point and avoided outside contact as much as possible. I was able to glean information about her condition from her son, who would each time shake his head and bite his lower lip.
Against her doctor’s advice Connie started smoking again. The way she saw it, she was going to die. That was a cold hand across the face fact. So why not enjoy the calming drags of nicotine in the time she had left?
Then Connie and her son simply dropped out of sight. I guessed she’d finally gone into hospice care and I would find out at some point.
The answer came at 3:30 a.m. when I was awakened by Connie’s shrill voice through the walls in her son’s apartment. It was followed by a loud thud.
From my bed I could hear Connie’s son rushing around in a breathless frenzy. Next he was on the telephone talking with a medical dispatcher.
The surreal impact of the situation held me down — paralyzed — in my bed.
When the EMTs arrived they found Connie unresponsive and blue in the face on the living room carpet. They made a split decision not to revive her: she determined she was dead before she hit the floor.
My heart sank when I heard the muffled anguish of Connie’s son, crying as the EMTs lifted his mother’s body unceremoniously onto a gurney. They rolled the gurney through the foyer andbthrough the front doorway into an ambulance waiting outside.
Red strobe lights danced in a mute, hypnotic rhythm as the ambulance slowly pulled away, rounded the street corner, and was gone.
For a while I just lay there in bed, listening to the strange, empty silence. Finally I got up to investigate.
Out in the cold foyer I stood in my bare feet and underwear, shivering, and waiting — for what, I wasn’t exactly sure.
A sudden breeze entered the foyer and I realized the EMTs had left the door wide open.
For the first time in years the air in the foyer smelled fresh and clean and cigarette smoke-free. And I imagined in some small yet reassuring way it was Connie, telling me goodbye.