Most people are 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 they are mere portals to the outside world — not the quiet messengers and conveyors of important events which they truly are.
It was through an open doorway that I first met my good neighbor Connie in the summer of 2003. I recall I was having a really bang-up time parking the tail end of a U-Haul truck flush up 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.
When I had finally suffered enough I 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 front 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 and just for that reason.
Connie seemed both amused and perplexed by my unorthodox parking skills and smiled. I glanced at all my things piled inside the U-Haul.
“Nah, that’s OK. I can handle it,” I said and smiled back. She stepped aside and held the front door open for me. I began moving in, small things first.
Connie recently had arrived in Boston after a long career in social work in California. It had been her life’s mission there, looking after society’s most vulnerable, invisible and abandoned people — the unfortunate outcasts, who managed to survive in the richest state in the country. When it came to her ailing son, however, she didn’t hesitate to leave the Golden State to attend to him in Boston. He needed her live-in care and companionship, and Connie delivered — seven days a week.
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 hilltop. The house had two apartments on each floor. The attic windows looked like two dark eyes that reminded me of “The Amityville Horror.” There was something strange and melancholy about this place. I couldn’t figure it out at first.
Eventually, I named the building “The Sick House.”
The name fit.
Connie and I soon became good first-floor neighbors and friends on the fly, since 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 tucked between her fingers.
Every year at Christmas Connie would surprise me with a gift bag of shortbread cookies and a card left 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 to her pack-a-day cigarette habit. Cigarettes, Connie confessed, had been her one vice and pleasure since she was a teenager. She was completely addicted to cigarettes. Most of all she loved the menthol taste of them, their slow, soothing effect — about as much as she loved California sunshine and instant coffee in the morning.
The majority of the tenants also smoked cigarettes and lived on the edge. One who had a drug problem dealt drugs to support his habit. Round and round it went, the cycle interrupted only by frequent overdoses. Another tenant had liver disease. And another was described as a pathological hoarder who collected newspapers in his apartment — first in piles, then in stacks. The stacks grew higher to form towers, walls and passageways. Finally, the incendiary hoard threatened to burn the entire house down with the slightest spark.
The tenant was given a month to clean out the place. Thankfully, he did.
The cigarette smoke that permeated the house was another species of tenant altogether. It had no personal boundaries, no social etiquette. Without warning or invitation it wafted quietly up, down and around the house, drifting across forbidden spaces, moving like an unwelcome squatter through hidden openings — malignant wisps of poison that came together as smog out in the foyer and common areas.
During winter the second-hand smoke invaded my apartment through the heating vents and every winter I considered moving. Inertia -- plus the lack of money -- always held me back.
Connie knew her smoking bothered me and she did her best to contain it in her son’s apartment. But the smoke was a clever prisoner: it always found a way out.
When I hadn’t seen her in nearly a month I asked her son how she was doing. I wasn’t too surprised when I was told an X-Ray had found a dark spot on her lung.
It was cancer — aggressive, and inoperable. She would be given chemotherapy first, 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 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 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 better — to get back to living and helping others who needed her — no matter how badly she looked, or felt.
Then I saw Connie one afternoon in the foyer angrily sweeping dust into a pan. 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, but kept it to myself.
Later that afternoon I purchased an air purifier on sale at a local department store 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 could breathe and sleep better. Eventually, her health began to slide in spite of the treatments. She became anxious and consumed with thoughts of dying. Her doctor prescribed medicine for her panic attacks brought on by her new prognosis.
Connie had only six months to live.
Connie went into seclusion at that point and avoided contact with the outside world as much as possible. I was able to glean information about her condition from her son, always with a dower, lip-bitten frown.
Against her doctor’s advice Connie started smoking again. The way she saw it, she was going to die anyway, so she might as well enjoy those calming drags of nicotine in the time she had left.
Then one day Connie and her son dropped out of sight. I just assumed she’d gone into hospice care and I would find out eventually.
The answer came to me when Connie’s shrill voice awoke me at 3:30 a.m. from across the hall in her son’s apartment. Then I heard a loud, forceful thud.
Through the plywood thin walls of my bedroom I could hear Connie’s son rushing around in a breathless frenzy. Next he was on the telephone, fielding instructions from 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 no effort to revive her, however: she was dead before she hit the floor.
Then I heard the muffled anguish of Connie’s son, crying as the EMTs lifted his mother’s body unceremoniously onto a gurney and then rolled through the front doorway into the ambulance waiting outside. Red strobe lights danced in mute, hypnotic rhythm as the ambulance slowly pulled away and rounded the street corner, and was gone.
For a while I lay in bed listening cautiously to the strange, empty silence outside my apartment walls. I finally got up to investigate.
I stood there in the foyer, shivering in my bare feet and underwear, waiting — for what, I wasn’t exactly sure. Perhaps it was for a sign that it had all been a dream, or that Connie's gentle spirit might still remain.
I felt a sudden cold breeze and noticed the EMTs had left the doorway wide open.
For the first time in the eight years I knew Connie the air in the foyer smelled clean and smoke-free. And I imagined in some small yet reassuring way it really was Connie, speaking to me in a breath of fresh night air, through an open doorway, and she was saying goodbye.