There’s a Man Dying Next Door
A man is dying next door. I know him. He owns the building I live in, and the building he lives in, and the parking lot where we park our car. His name is Abou Hussein. He used to sit everyday on a folding chair in the parking lot to monitor the comings and goings on his property, but he hasn’t been there in a long while. One time, before he was dying, my uncle pulled into the lot to park, and Abou Hussein told him to get lost. Abou Hussein is a slight man, with twiggy legs and arms, and a mousy face half covered with black aviator sunglasses. He often wore a hat, shorts, and tennis shoes, and though he could see better than he could hear, his hearing and eyesight were both almost shot.
But now he is dying. I know because I can hear him. His pain sounds like a goat’s bleat. In fact, the first time I heard him, I looked around from my balcony, wondering if someone had bought a goat and kept him in the parking lot or on their balcony, as there isn’t any grass in our sliver of the concrete jungle, just near the Mediterranean.
Hajji Haifa is Abou Hussein’s wife. She goes to hajj every year. I have a direct view from my balcony to where Hajji sits inside her living room in front of the television, from morning until night, her long gray braid visible from under a loose, white scarf. She sits in front of the television, smoking long cigarettes, unless she goes out in her Honda to run an errand with her twin sisters or to host one of her charity events for the orphanage on whose board she serves. In my absence, Rami, my husband, told her that I’d wondered if there was a goat in the vicinity, and they had a big laugh.
Watering my collection of herb pots, I hear Abou Hussein, and I turn around toward his and Hajji’s house. She sits looking over at me with her long cigarette, and she throws her head back and laughs. I cackle. But when I ask, “What’s going on with him, anyway?” she looks away, takes a drag, and says, “He’s eating,” instead of saying, “He’s dying.”
One day, I am standing in our small kitchen with my stepdaughter Layla and Rami. The room leads out to the balcony across from Hajji and Abou Hussein, who is in agony again. Leo, my 10-month-old baby, is sleeping inside. We were having a rare quiet moment until we heard Abou Hussein. Layla asks, “What’s that noise?” Rami and I exchange a look. We ask her what it sounds like, and she says “A crow!” We all giggle. We are giggling about a dying man. Layla is seven. She knows death. She has experienced the death of two cats and a goldfish. But she hasn’t seen it or heard it. If Rami and I could barely understand how we felt about hearing the dying of a man, of his slowly leaving the only world we know, a place where our herb pots or a moment of quiet are important to us, then how could we say to Layla as we stood in a sun-filled kitchen with food bubbling on the stove that “There is a man dying next door”? That we are alive, but that sound is the sound of someone penetrating the invisible barrier between here and nowhere—at least nowhere we can hear or see.
I go out to the balcony to take down the dry laundry off the line, and I glimpse Hajji feeding Abou Hussein with a spoon. He is very white, his head is back, mouth agape, awaiting the spoonfuls, just like Leo does. She appears tender. This is not a side of her that I know. I act like I do not notice them, and I do not dare glance back, but I am curious about the changes in Abou Hussein and Hajji. He is no longer the man who would yell at people to not park in his lot. And she is not heckling him because he cannot hear. She is feeding him because she has to keep him alive in his current state of dying.
I imagine her catching sight of me and getting up and moving to another room, but I wouldn’t know.
Rami and I install a new balcony hose that retracts and expands to “three times its size” to water the plants. It’s light and has a sprayer attached to it. We love getting new household gadgets and spending time getting them to work.
We are on the balcony facing Hajji’s house when we hear Abou Hussein again. We do not acknowledge it because we have become accustomed to the sound as a part of the cacophony of the city, melding into the noise of the nearby construction site, the horns honking seven floors below us, the distant whir of a generator. Hajji tells him to shut up and someone else shushes him.
Only then do I whisper to Rami: “Did you hear that?” I wonder what he could have done to be treated so lowly. Maybe he abused his family members. Maybe he ignored them. Maybe his family just cannot figure out how to deal with his dying.
It’s easier to project anger than sadness.
We continue swapping tools and trying to figure out how to make our new hose attach to the old spigot.
I drop by Fakhani, the corner shop, to grab some tomato paste, and I hear a man yelling his head off in one of the buildings facing it. I slow down. Look up. Two kids stand on the balcony, confused or perhaps hiding. They stand there stiffly, not visibly scared or even like children. They stand there, just outside the wide-open sliding doors from where the yelling comes, as if they have done this before—waiting out the storm inside until it takes its course.
I walk away. I think I will tell Rami about the horrifying scene, how sad the yelling made me. I’ll ask him if he knows who lives there. But he doesn’t know, and we soon go back to our comforting domesticity.
Now, as I write, I am ashamed of myself for not calling the police, for only caring about the story that I could share. It’s so easy to be horrified. Then to put my head down, and dissolve into numbness. As if the story itself is the anecdote, that if I tell the story, something will change, be made right. But the story won’t save someone from becoming traumatized, or from dying. Nothing can.
Each time I water my herbs, Hajji asks me about them. It is now a few weeks since the first time I heard Abou Hussein. Hajji is solemn, without her usual spunk. This time we exchange the same small talk. I explain what herbs they are, for the fifth, sixth time: chives, sage, pepper, and thyme, all thriving, green, the first signs of spring. She nods and says, “Yes, yes, I know them.” She takes a long, calm drag of her cigarette, and like a good neighbor, she gives me advice and a promise from one balcony to another: “You must add water regularly. I’ll keep an eye on them for you.”