February 13, 2009
I’ve often said that despite the fact that I live in a Philadelphia row house, sharing walls with neighbors on both sides, I never hear them. And they’ve said they never hear me, even on those occasional nights when I come home in the wee hours and decide to blast ’80s dance music.
Which is great, because I really like my neighbors, especially Paco and Marga, a couple for whom Valentine’s Day might have been created. They celebrated one last time in 2005, and the next day were separated forever.
Paco was 78, Marga 55. They’re both originally from Mexico, and Paco has the long, full mustache of a revolutionary.
Paco and Marga were always together ” walking to the outdoor market for fresh vegetables, en route to a doctor’s appointment, sweeping the sidewalk in front of their home. They were patient with each other: Marga would raise her voice and repeat a question multiple times until Paco heard it. And to help Marga keep pace, Paco would slow his gait, sometimes placing a gentle hand on her back.
I want that, I thought to myself. That’s what love is supposed to be.
They were good people, Paco and Marga. Soon after I’d moved in, Paco stopped me on the sidewalk. “I watch to make sure you get home safe at night,” he told me. “But if you ever have trouble, anywhere, you yell,” -and here he actually did so – ” “Paco! Paco!’ and I will come running.”
The image of Paco, running from our South Philadelphia neighborhood to rescue me, wherever I was ” New York, New Orleans, Baghdad ” always makes me smile.
Marga kept me apprised of the neighborhood doings, good and bad, advising me to lock my doors or keep my outdoor lights on. When a handyman failed to finish a job at my house and took my money, she tried to learn where he lived, then found someone else to finish the work for me.
Sometimes when a visitor rang one of our doorbells, both would sound, and we’d both pop our heads out of our third-floor bedroom windows to see who had the guest. Like gophers emerging from holes, “Hi, Marga.” “Hi, Natalie.” Then we’d talk a bit, about our neighbors or the weather or the holiday around the corner.
I never heard a sound from Paco and Marga’s house until Feb. 15, 2005.
I’d just gotten home from work when wailing pierced the walls, then choking sobs and cries of “No. No.”
Instantly I thought of Marga and was terrified.
For as long as I’d known her, Marga had cancer. I’d never seen her with the thick dark hair you could see in the photo on their living room wall. I never saw her when she was quick and vibrant. I knew a slower woman with a buzz cut of fine graying hair.
I walked to their door. I could hear Paco inside, his gasps, his cries of “My love, my love.” I knocked and knocked until he opened the door.
“Paco. What … ?”
“My wife. I found her. She is gone.”
“Let me in.”
He fumbled for the keys, then unlocked the metal gate in front of their door. Marga’s body was lying in a hospital bed in the middle of their living room. I touched her face, and she was still warm, having left only minutes before.
As I stood there, my hand on Marga’s forehead, Paco put his head down on the bed and wept.
“It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” he said. “I’m supposed to go first.”
I sat on one side of Marga, with Paco on the other. I rubbed her leg, as if to comfort her, but actually to comfort myself. Paco cried. He hugged her body. He caressed her face. Then he took hold of the edge of the white sheet and said, “We should cover her.”
I took the other corner, and we pulled it gently over her face, careful to make the edge flat and neat.
Their son was on his way, and Paco ” always thinking of others ” told me I could go.
“I want to stay,” I said. “I liked Marga. She was a good neighbor.”
We waited. Then he asked, “Did you hear me?” Yes, I said. Even though the sounds of music and raucous life had never penetrated our walls, through their thickness I had heard his pain.
He told me that he and Marga had been together for 28 years. Both had been married before, but “she was like my first love. She was my last love. What am I going to do now? Alone?”
She’d been afraid to die, he told me, because she was worried about how he would handle life without her. And he cried again.
We sat quietly, our heads down, while the oxygen machine at the end of the bed continued to whirr and pump. I considered turning it off but feared what the silence would do.
About 30 minutes later their son arrived. A big man, strong and tall, he immediately threw himself on his mother’s body, his face next to hers, and howled, “Mommy, I love you, Mommy.”
I snuck away and went home. I could hear Paco and his son through the wall. At one point, Paco went outside and began walking up and down our tiny alley street, crying. I looked down at him from my bedroom window, feeling helpless. I watched as other neighbors peeked outside and then withdrew into their homes.
For hours that night I sat awake, waiting for Paco and his son to call an ambulance. They stayed with Marga all night.
For months after her death, it was quiet at their house. I visited when I could, bringing dinner and a hug. Paco told me he couldn’t stop crying. But one day there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
He said, “I spent the day singing to my wife.”
“Poor Marga,” I thought.
And then I thought again, no, Marga Sosa was lucky. Because she was loved, and will be remembered, and that’s all anyone can hope for.