Death and the jerk next door

    Stephen was the über-neighbor — ubiquitous, in-your-face and knowing no boundaries. For two years we barely spoke. Then, suddenly, there was a very big reason to be more neighborly.

    The problems started right after I moved in.

    Stephen was the über-neighbor — ubiquitous, in-your-face and knowing no boundaries. He was in his late 30s and lived off a trust fund. Having no job, neighboring was his profession. When Stephen wasn’t golfing, polishing his Jaguar or fussing about crabgrass, he was deep into controlling other people’s property in our townhouse development.

    Stephen had a hands-on approach. Once while I was out, he crawled behind the bushes, lifted my slightly ajar living room window and climbed in — purportedly to shut the upstairs windows during a rain shower. He only fessed up when I asked three days later (“by any chance”) if he had closed them. Then, there was the strange disappearance of a straw duck I had placed on our joint porch.

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    Another time I came home to a bill taped on my door; Stephen had negotiated a group rate for power washing and decided without asking that my house needed it, too. It was even a struggle to keep my doormat where I wanted it because he would regularly slide it to the spot he preferred when he swept the porch. And neighbors told me he complained to them that my car’s missing hubcap was lowering his property value.

    But the real showdown was over a fence he put up. He gated his loud, unsightly heat pump into my yard — out of his view, and accessible only from my property. I made a formal complaint to the homeowner’s association, which led to the shocking discovery that Stephen had been lying to everyone about owning the house. He was merely renting it.

    Stephen ignored requests from the association and the owner to remove or reposition his fence, which violated townhouse rules … and called me a few unflattering names to boot.

    For the next two years, we barely spoke.

    Then, the totally unforeseen. The wildly unlikely. Stephen, 41, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

    “Six months,” my friend, a physician, estimated.

    I had never wished him dead. Not even bad karma could explain this. I left a card at Stephen’s door, confiding that I had had cancer, too. I offered to give him the low-down on chemo and radiation and prepare him for the stupid comments of people who mean well.

    I signed it: “The Jerk Next Door.”

    When I saw him next, he had just learned that his pancreas was obliterated and the cancer had spread to his liver. Softly, Stephen said my card meant a lot to him. A lot. He was verging on tears, as was I.

    I hugged him — an instinct to allow both of us to hide the emotion on our faces.

    “Welcome to the Cancer Club,” I said, rolling my eyes and trying to be flip and casual. The recurring cancer nightmares I had after my own diagnosis 20-some years ago returned, unbidden.

    Watching the enemy fall was no kind of wonderful. I watched Stephen disintegrate, one chemo treatment after the next. We chatted only occasionally when he slipped outside, but our exchanges were genuine for the first time. He now appeared frail, and his trademark cackle of a laugh was gone.

    Stephen’s mother moved in to care for him. I left pumpkin bread at their door for Thanksgiving and made a donation at the holidays to the hospital where Stephen was being treated. His mother would thank me for any kindness and never let on if she knew we had been feuding.

    In our last face-to-face, Stephen was changing a lightbulb on his porch. He lifted his sweatshirt to show me his new infusion device for pain. As he tested the bulb, I joked that he should be careful not to blow himself up with all the chemicals in him. He looked at me, puzzled, not quite understanding how to take this or respond. Dark humor had been my supplication while enduring cancer. But this was one more thing — like his golfing and living large — that would never translate between us.

    Stephen died seven weeks later. My life in this house has been lighter, freer since then. I remember him sometimes, though, in the absence of the perfect geraniums that used to gloat in his garden, or during the uninterrupted quiet when I’m reading in the backyard.

    Something really odd happened on the day of his funeral. I won a door prize that night at a professional function: golf for 20 at a local country club. A gift I would never use. A cosmic wink from Stephen.

    Eve Glicksman is a writer in Ambler, Pa. Her essays have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday and Atlanta Constitution, among others. She is also a former staff member of WHYY-FM. Read more of her work at

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