One Man's Alaska

A knock on the door

July 28, 2010

There was a knock on Al's door, and he answered it, expecting to see his neighbor who he loaned some money to. Instead, the neighbor who lives across the hallway was standing there, with the door to her apartment open. There were three apartment doors on the second floor landing, and her door was directly across from his. The other apartment door was just to Al's left, and the stairs leading to the parking lot were to his right.

"Hi," the woman said, "I know we don't know each other, but I was wondering if we could talk for a little while. I'm kinda depressed."

"Sure", Al said, "just give me a moment to turn off my music." As he stepped back into his apartment to turn off his music he tried to remember the woman's name, but he couldn't recall it. He had just moved into this apartment complex in Wasilla, Alaska recently, and while he had met all but three of his nearest neighbors, he couldn't recall their names, except for Daniel. Daniel needed a little money to make it through the week two weeks ago. He promised to pay Al back when his disability check came in the following Monday, but he hadn't paid Al back yet.

Al and the woman talked for nearly an hour in the hallway between their open apartment doors. He thought about inviting the woman into his apartment, but because he only owned one chair, standing in the hallway seemed just as good as standing in his apartment, and the fresh air was nice, if not a bit too cool. From time to time he looked into her apartment, and saw that she had decorated with many shades of pinks and purples. He assumed the woman looked past him from time to time and saw that he decorated his apartment with, well, nothing.

As their conversation approached the one hour mark, the woman casually mentioned that her fourteen year old cat was sick. "Is she dehydrated?" Al asked, thinking of how his recent gallbladder attack had led to many side effects, including becoming severely dehydrated, and then dizzy from the dehydration. The only way around the dizziness was to drink fluids and lay down.

"I don't know. How can you tell?"

"You can pinch their skin, and if it doesn't go back down the way it normally does, they're dehydrated," Al said. He could tell she didn't know what he meant, so he pinched his own skin to show her the technique, but the expression on her face didn't change. "Would you like me to take a look at her?"

"Yes, please, if you don't mind."

As soon as Al saw the cat lying on a towel on the woman's couch he knew she was near death. She stared straight ahead, and was either blind, paralyzed, or both. Her body was laboring extremely hard just to breathe. Petting her, he could feel no muscle, only bone. "You either need to get this cat to the vet right now, or you should take this time to say goodbye to her," Al said, more forcefully than he intended to, "she doesn't have much time left."

To Al's surprise, the woman turned and walked out of her apartment, giving him no indication of where she was going. He realized he may have been too abrupt in his speech, but he didn't mean to upset her; it was just that time was of the essence. Caught between going after the woman or staying with the cat, he sat down next to the cat, continued petted her, speaking to her softly that if she needed to pass on, it was okay, don't be afraid.

The cat lurched several times, and Al knew she was dying at this moment, here in this woman's apartment, alone with him. He picked up the cat in the towel she laid on, and in one final lurch, she died in the towel in his lap.

The woman came back a few moments later with another neighbor whose name Al didn't know. At first the other neighbor stood in the hallway, seeing both apartment doors open, and seeing the apartment insides for the first time. Al would later learn that this other neighbor worked at a local animal shelter for several years.

As they walked in, there wasn't much to say, just to try to say it right. "I'm sorry," Al said, "she's passed on."

Al sat there holding the cat, and as the neighbors looked at her, they also came to realize she wasn't breathing any more. "I'm so sorry" said the second woman, and they hugged each other and cried.

In a few moments Daniel appeared in the doorway. Like the other woman, he looked around Al's apartment, then looked inside this apartment, finally stepping into the woman's living room. Seeing the dead cat, he hugged the cat's owner, who started crying again, while Al and the other woman set the cat back on the couch.

After they all talked for a while about family members who have passed away in their lives -- both human and four-legged -- Al looked at the neighbor's clock, and said, "It looks like she passed away around 4:30."

"No," the cat's owner replied, wiping her eyes with her kleenex, "That clock doesn't work. It's almost 8:30."

"Oh," said Al, looking out the second-floor window and seeing afternoon light in the treetops. That's right, he thought, we're in Alaska, land of the midnight sun, where 8 p.m. on a summer night looks the same as 4 p.m., or even earlier.

"Can you give us a ride to the hospital? My wife just cut her finger open," yells another nameless neighbor, who suddenly appeared at the front door. A woman screams from somewhere down below us. "I've got this one," says Daniel, hopping off the couch and out the door, looking comfortable in his shorts and t-shirt in the upper-forties weather, as Al shivered in his blue jeans and sweater.

A moment after Daniel runs out of the apartment, a woman Al doesn't know now stands in the hallway. Holding keys in her hand, and first looking around his apartment, and then standing in the doorway to this apartment, Al assumes she is one of the three neighbors he hasn't met yet. Still speechless, she looks downstairs as a car peels out of the parking lot, then looks in our apartment, not sure what she should say or do ...

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