The dogs have the living room on cold nights

I was preparing my talk for last night’s schedule in the zendo, when the doorbell rang. Friends usually walk right in.

I opened the door, Harry and Aussie jumping up in excitement, and there was a woman I knew from the local community, someone I’d met when we first arrived in Massachusetts in 2002. I’d visited her and her husband briefly at home that year and would run into her at local events. Her face seemed ravaged and it was hard for her to meet my eyes.

“Do you remember me?” were her first words.

I assured her that I did and told her to come in. Instinctively I invited her to sit on the couch rather than in our dining room; usually the dogs have free reign there during weekdays. I sat next to her, reminded her of past meetings, and she got to the point.

“This is horrible,” she said. “I don’t know where to start. Call it a mission of mercy.”

She then proceeded to tell me that her daughter, an only child, with two sons of her own, had lost her home in a fire that destroyed everything some two years back. “The insurance helped, but not much,” she said. They worked hard to get rehoused.

“And then my daughter died suddenly, in her sleep, five months ago. She was 51.” She looked up, almost forcing herself to meet my eyes. “I’m going to neighbors and friends asking for loans. We have to pay the funeral house for burying my daughter. I’m very embarrassed about this, but sometimes you just have no choice, you have to ask for help.”

She indeed was embarrassed. Her face had turned pink when she mentioned money. A moment after forcing herself to meet my eyes, she lowered them again.

For months she couldn’t find her feet under her, she said, she was in shock. Unlike me, who had the luxury of mourning the loss of a husband who lived a fairly long and rich life, she had to get moving. “What gets me going are my two grandsons; I try to be there for them. And then we have this large debt.”

I see her face in my mind now. I think of how sudden death hits people. There’s too much shock to even feel grief, no chance to take stock, to stay balanced. I’ve seen people plan catered memorials that they can’t afford. I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars on munificent caskets for a loved one who suddenly died, only to remember much later that the person really wanted to be cremated. I’ve seen people write long, laborious obituaries for the newspaper because they can’t think of another way to honor a son or daughter, only to be stunned by a subsequent bill for a couple of thousand dollars.

What do you say to someone who couldn’t afford to bury her daughter? She and her husband live 2 miles away. They have a house in the woods and wear the same clothes I do. They’re neighbors.

What most affected me was the courage it took to knock on the door and ask for financial help. In this rural area we see our way towards borrowing a cup of sugar or some butter, it seems to be the quintessence of what it is to be neighbors. But money?

I told her how moved I was by her ask. I remembered how the main part of a street retreat was asking for money.

“You have to learn to ask,” Bernie used to say.

Many of us, including me, were self-conscious because it was a street retreat, we weren’t truly homeless.

“It doesn’t matter,” he’d say. “Asking is asking. Always, always ask. Don’t look at the person’s face and assess whether they’re liable to give you something, ask everybody. Asking is the practice.”

My neighbor didn’t ask everybody, but she did ask me. And regardless of how much I gave her (I wouldn’t hear of a loan), she gave me back much, much more.