One sunny Sunday morning, my downstairs neighbor George didn’t wake up. For many years, I had known him casually as a nice, older man, whom I would run into at annual meetings and in the elevator, where we would exchange pleasantries. Sometimes, I could hear him laugh through the spaces around our exposed hot water pipes. By the end, I thought of George as an extraordinary neighbor.
Ten years earlier, as my older daughter cleaned her scuba gear in our bathtub, I received my first call from George. “Hello,” he said quietly into the phone. “This is George from downstairs. I’m so sorry to bother you, but there’s a bit of water coming down from your apartment, and I thought you might want to have it checked.”
I immediately ran down the stairwell to George’s apartment. He opened his front door, still apologizing. Over his shoulder, I could see water pouring down from the ceiling.
“Oh, George, I am so sorry. We will take care of this.”
And we did. We had his furniture refinished and his apartment painted. We fixed our tub, although it was forever after off limits. More importantly, I began to consider other ways my family might be intruding on George, because it was clear that short of calamity, like a flood, he would never complain. Music was turned down. Shoes were removed at the front door. The new piano had an electronic feature so that it could be played silently while wearing headphones.
But I wanted to be absolutely certain we were being good neighbors. I checked in frequently with George. Any leaks? Hear anything? No, he would say. All dry. Not a sound. As the years went on, I felt I had the “George situation” well in hand, so when my younger daughter talked me into letting her take tap dance classes and the teacher suggested we practice at home, I called George.
“I’ll put a thick, heavy gym pad under a piece of plywood. If you hear it, we will stop. Immediately.”
George said that was fine; not to worry. After the practice began, I called him – every day at first – and was assured that everything was “fine.” In the elevator a month later, when I asked George if he could hear us tapping he said, “Everything is fine.” As he stepped out onto his floor, he turned to me and, with a big smile, said, “Tell your daughter her time-step is coming along nicely.”
Was he giving me a coded complaint? During my frantic follow-up phone call, George tried to assure me that he enjoyed the goings-on in my apartment. “I especially like the Monday voice lessons.” The worst he would say is that he was still enjoying having his apartment spruced up because of our waterfall years earlier. From someone else I would have considered this sarcasm, but not from George.
Years later, on a misty late summer morning, another neighbor and I drove to the middle of Pennsylvania to say goodbye to George. At the memorial service, I stood before his loved ones and spoke about George and the tub and George and the tap dancing and how much I had learned from George and his quiet, generous ways.
Time passed. Not long after the new owners of George’s apartment completed a beautiful renovation, my husband and I moved out for a gut renovation of our own. Two weeks into the job, demolition revealed a major problem that could be resolved only by a redesign of the entire project or by breaking into our new neighbor’s new ceiling to reroute pipes. “It’s not a big deal,” our designer said. “The pipes will be hidden in the hollow space between your floor and their ceiling.”
I wanted to be like George – to be the kind of neighbor who would not ask for such a big favor. But looking at my apartment, which had been stripped to the studs, and facing the possibility of extending our renovation by another year, I realized I was not even close. Facing my new neighbors and braced for rejection, I discovered that they were George’s equals, agreeing to our outrageous request without betraying a trace of disapproval.
Nine months later, I returned to our newly renovated apartment vowing to be a better neighbor. Now, when I hear the dog upstairs chasing his ball or the hammering from construction next door or people laughing outside my window, I think about George, and the couple who live in his apartment, and what it means to be a good neighbor, and I smile. Thank you, George.