On the Passing of a Beloved Neighbor

One of the problems of having friends in graduate school is that you can’t keep them. No one wishes for one’s friends to move away, and yet, the longer they stay, the worse it is for them. Graduate school is a transient state one passes through on the way to something else; it’s not permanent (thank God). 

So when your friends go on job interviews, although you hope they get the job, you know that if they do, they’ll be leaving. And if they leave, you won’t have them around to shoot the breeze between classes, have cookouts together on the lawn, or play softball in the summers. 

By the same token, if they stay, there’s no future for them: they won’t have jobs, a regular salary, a decent place to live, classes of their own, a real life. 

If they stay, the stipend will end, the graduate school will no longer keep them on the university’s health insurance, and they’ll be consigned to that hellish limbo called “adjunct faculty,” a status one wouldn’t wish on one’s worst enemies, let alone one’s dearest friends. 

I remember the summer one of our friends who had actually finished his dissertation but didn’t yet have a job (even though his Ph.D. was in the sciences, something marketable, unlike mine), considered going over to Denny’s to apply for a job as a waiter.

One of the guys on our softball team teased him mercilessly saying: “You know what they’ll say over at Denny’s, don’t you? Oh sure, you’ve got a Ph.D., but what about publications? Here at Denny’s we expect at least two articles in major journals.” 

Fortunately Dave got a job before the summer was out, which meant we had to play the rest of the summer without him. We were sad to see him go, but his departure gave us all a sense of hope that there was life beyond graduate school: beyond the studying and the classes and the silly papers no one would ever read – a real life rather than just endless preparation for real life.

Now of all the things I was hoping life would not be like, graduate school would certainly top the list. And yet, as it turns out, there is this one noteworthy similarity: friends can’t stay – life being, in its own way, as transient a state in the end as graduate school.

My beloved next-door-neighbor is dying. He is in his eighties, and the cancer that was in his prostate has moved into his spine. The doctors give him six months, give or take.

Good neighbors become part of the comfortable fabric of your life, like the Japanese maple tree in the back yard or the creaky porch in the front. Most days, you don’t think about them. But they bring stability and joy because of their presence, and something very crucial would be missing if they weren’t there.  So too with good neighbors. 

You don’t have to see them every day to know they’re there. You see their trash out, their lights on in the evening, their paper on the steps, and their car in and out of the drive: signs of life, as the saying goes. 

They have their customary patterns as you have yours, and you can mark your day by them. “Mr. Rowland was up early this morning,” my wife and I say if his car is missing when we go out, or “Boy, Anthony is up late tonight” if we see his lights on later than usual. He cares for his yard in a certain way, keeps his hedges trimmed nicely – so much better than mine – and always diligently sees to the leaves in the fall. Except for this fall. You don’t have to see him every day to know something very crucial would be missing if he weren’t there.

A neighborhood is a common good, and a common good is not merely an aggregation of private goods. If it were, you could lose a unit, replace it, like a light bulb, and things would go on as before. But that’s not the way it is at all. To lose a member of the community is to diminish the whole, to change the essence of the place. 

And yet, here’s the problem: we can’t keep Anthony indefinitely, any more than we can keep forever that beloved maple tree. Time and God don’t work that way. I can’t keep Anthony any more than I could hold on to my friends in graduate school. To wish for him to stay indefinitely would be to wish something horrible for him. 

Anthony’s beloved wife, that miraculous French woman Colette, has been dead now for several years, and he’s been wondering, as older men sometimes do after their wives have passed, why he’s not yet joined her. 

He’s a wise Christian man and knows that his life is not his own: that God must still have some work to do – on him or with him. But this doesn’t keep him from occasionally entertaining the unavoidable thought: When will I be with my beloved wife again? 

            It’s not clear yet when Anthony will get the call to move on to a real life – with the only real “tenure” that’s not transient or illusory. I know that when the call comes, I will miss him greatly. It would be a cruel friend, though, who would try to keep him a moment longer than his appointed moving day. My only concern now in the meantime is how to help him pack for the move – and how I’m going to cope when he’s gone. 

No doubt, when the time comes, I’ll need his and Colette’s help in the days that follow.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.