Just weeks ago, Eva died. I always liked her, but didn’t know her well. I learned the personal details of her life incidentally and accidentally, at neighborhood gatherings.
Four years back, when her Dalmatian Prince was still alive, she threw a birthday party in her yard for the deaf old dog, complete with paper hats and cake. She invited both people and pets, but I didn’t dare bring Porter, my black lab, for fear of him humping the hostess. I don’t remember any animals save Prince and a stray cat. It was a pet-less pleasure to relax on Eva and Albert’s lawn furniture and visit.
My son was considering college then, and she warned me off of Kalamazoo, saying it ‘ruined’ her boy. He took up with the wrong crowd, and ended up modeling in New York City. Was this her code for coming out as gay? I didn’t ask. The bunch of us moved on to stories about 9/11. She and Albert both had grown children in New York, from first marriages, who’d found their spouses via cell-phone after the towers fell. Our neighbor Susan Chiaro’s father flew into Boston just as planes were grounded. Upon landing, his cabbie was weeping: the honey-mooning couple he’d dropped off that morning had boarded a doomed flight.
The usual things changed in the ensuing years. Susan moved to Madison. Prince died. I’d spy Eva power-walking when I took Porter out. Her cropped blond locks bobbed along at a brisk pace and I’d admire her lithe limbs and upbeat mood, hoping to be like her when I reached her age. Though she was but a few years ahead of me, and I kept overtaking the ages I envied, I never closed the muscular gap between her taut shape and my own softer figure.
Sometimes we’d say hello in passing, other times exchange more words. She’d mourn the lack of “a dog to pee on my flowers” and indulge Porter’s leaping greeting. Over those years, Albert began and finished an immense project in their yard, bricking in walkways, planting borders and flowers, coaxing it into a magical showpiece of a garden. Over the winters, she said he sat staring out the window, sketching and planning. Summers, he’d dig and water and prune--such work you can do without a big dog to pee on and tear up your efforts.
I passed their house at least once a day, noting the neat lemony border of petunias below their living room window, and the white grand piano behind its filmy curtains. Summer and winter, petunias or snow, a vase full of flowers, often roses, would sit atop the piano: red punctuating ivory. I never thought to ask about the piano, who might have played, whether it was Eva or Albert, or one of their children, up and gone.
Somewhere in that interval of years, we sought each other out at a neighbor’s baby shower, though our talk soon turned grim for the occasion. Eva was recently back from Poland, where her mother had died. In the hospital, when they visited, her mother’s breasts had turned black, something she’d never heard of before, nor had I.
Time advanced. Eva walked; I walked Porter. This winter, I didn’t see Eva, but didn’t wonder. There’s not much pleasure strolling hereabouts in the subzero months.
Then, in April, I heard she was dead. Diagnosed, suddenly, with gall bladder cancer. Cramps and projectile vomiting, surgery. A quick three months from discovery to death.
It’s hard to grasp an absence when someone dies who you don’t see daily. But I’ve heard a change. These days, when Porter and I pass her window at night, we’re often startled by haunting piano melodies. It’s Albert at the keys, performing concertos as lush and lovely as his garden, with Porter, the roses and me his only audience.
I never remembered to ask Eva who played piano. I know now; the music has answered.