Neighbor

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SEAN DIETRICH

My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I answered. I expected to be greeted with an automated voice, delivering exciting information about my auto warranty. Instead, it was a young man. I’ll call him Fred, although that’s not his name. I’d forgotten I was expecting his call.

“Where do you want me to start?” said Fred.

“Start wherever you want.”

He was calling from the third-floor of the oncology unit. Thirteen years old. When he told me that he was dying, I lost the air in my lungs.

“Are you still there?” he said.

“Yeah,” I answered.

At first, I was tempted to ask if this was all some kind of elaborate prank. Cynical, I know. But it’s not every day you meet a kid like Fred.

He went on. “I just wanted to tell you what I’ve learned on my personal journey. I thought maybe you could write about it.”

Big words from a young man. I couldn’t even answer.

“Are you still there, Mister Sean?”

“I’m here.” I fumbled for a pencil. “Go ahead, Fred. I’m listening.”

I could hear his mother in the background urging him to speak. And I got the sense that I was involved in a deeply personal family moment. I felt like an intruder.

“I’ve learned that people are great,” he began. “People are nice to you when you need them. But not the people you think will be nice. People I didn’t even think were my friends are now friends and they would probably do anything for me.

“Like, my friend Rachel has come to the hospital pretty much every day this year. Sometimes she sleeps here and we play games and stuff like that. We weren’t even friends before I got sick, she was just in my class. There are, literally, a bunch of people like that in my life right now.”

I wrote it all down, but said nothing.

“I’ve learned that nobody is invisible, even when you think you are invisible and, like, when you think nobody cares about you. God watches you, and I’ve actually seen him.”

I stopped him. “You’ve seen who?”

“God.”

“Are you being literal?”

“Yep,” he said. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just know he’s standing here, I’ve seen something big in the corner, something bright, like, actually in my room, giving me strength, and making me feel that it’s going to be okay.”

My eyes were beginning to drip all over my paper.

“You mean you saw an angel?” I said.

“Maybe,” he said. “Or maybe it was God.”

I took a moment to blow my nose. I was surprised that I was feeling a little angry inside. Angry that — let’s just call it what it — God would let a kid like this die. Angry that this world is so unfair.

“But how can you say all these nice things about God?” I asked. “How can you have so much faith when you’re…”

“Dying?”

His little voice sounded a hundred years older than mine.

“Even though God doesn’t answer my prayers,” he said, “it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. I mean, I prayed and prayed to be healed, and a lot of people are praying for me. But it didn’t work out and that doesn’t make him a bad God.”

I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“How do you feel, Fred?” I asked. “About all this bad stuff happening?”

“Honestly, I don’t feel anything. I’m not mad or sad or anything because I don’t have energy to be mad. I’m tired a lot. And I’m not scared. Everyone has a purpose and I’m really lucky I found mine.”

“May I ask what that purpose is, Fred?” I asked.

I heard him sigh. “Just to be with the people I love. To love my mom and dad and my brother, and to just … To make them happy, to laugh and stuff, to go and do whatever with them, to just have fun. Just playing and hanging out with my friends. Just being with my dad and watching a movie together. That’s really all.”

I could not answer. And even writing this, I have had to wipe my keyboard a few times. Because I don’t understand. I am incapable.

We talked for about an hour before his nurse came in, whereupon his mother took the phone. In the background, I could hear Fred laughing with his nurse. I could hear his cheerful voice, telling her that he felt okay today, even though his mother told me this was entirely untrue.

A small crowd attended Fred’s funeral. Family and close friends only. I wish I had a clever closing line for this column, but I don’t. So I will leave you with a song that was Fred’s favorite. A song his mother says her son had been singing since he was a baby, when sitting in front of the television screen.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,

“A beautiful day for a neighbor,

“Would you be mine, could you be mine?”

“So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,

“Since we’re all here, we might as well say,

“Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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