There’s a hush in the apartment next door to mine, carrying with it enormous hope and expectation.
That’s where Wendy lived. She was not only my neighbour for 12 years, but also a flatmate for three years before that.
Wendy, who has Cerebral Palsy, always had a dream of moving to warmer climes, far north of here. Those of us who are less mobile tend to feel a chill in the air more than others. Often, she would go about in a sweater or cardigan on the warmest of summer days and not appear hot, in fact, sometimes Wendy said she wasn’t warm enough!
So it was Wendy’s desire to go to live in Queensland. She had a carer who moved there and the connection made it feasible to inquire into how the move could be made.
We first met in the mid 1990’s, while living in the same group house, with some support, designed to help us learn how to live independently. As in many group house situations, there were tensions among the three residents, but for the most part we got on by doing our own thing as much as possible. Wendy loved writing with her computer and a pointing stick, on a cap around her head. At times I helped her with what she was writing.
Wendy’s disability gives her a speech impediment, that was exacerbated by high emotion at times. So that required patience from both of us, a willingness to persevere with communication for genuine understanding.
Another practicality to be understood was establishing the right level of rapport and interaction with an apparent army of carers attending to Wendy’s daily needs, on a roster. Some were older than I, others younger, all were women and I was the only man in the house. Being at the dinner table with Wendy and any one of these carers provided challenges of etiquette. Were they to be ignored, included in the conversation or would the risk be that they would be focussed upon more readily than my flatmate? Moderation in all things became the key. Occasionally we shared the food that I’d made or which had been cooked for us. Once, I remember Wendy “conspiring” to bake me a cake for no other reason than to show her friendship.
Wendy was the first of the three of us there to move out, having been allocated a flat by the Australian Capital Territory Government. I remember well her joy and relief! When it was my turn, imagine my surprise to find who my neighbour would be. That would create a whole new dynamic to our relationship.
We kept out of each others’ pockets, so to speak, meeting on the way to or from our local, suburban shops. I would pop in to Wendy’s for her Birthdays. We’d chat sometimes about how Wendy’s college studies were going, and she took huge joy at revealing her exam results: scores in the 80’s and 90’s for economics and history! But there was another, important aspect to our neighbourliness. The walls between our apartments were thin enough not only for me to hear the telephone and sometimes other noises next door (Wendy is also hard of hearing and needs things turned up a bit louder than usual), but I could also hear her calling out for help in the night. There were times when this happened more often than others, and when I would not hear for ages. Times when I was in bed, in the land of nod, and heard a cry, as Wendy had fallen and needed help.
Not being a strapping muscular man, there was nothing I could do to physically help, except call an ambulance with a crew of two to assist. In fact, there was not a great deal any carer without a certain experience and level of expertise could do. It seemed only one of Wendy’s carers, had picked up a fail-safe technique of doing this. I could only provide assurance that help would come, and company before it arrived.
These episodes improved me. They taught me almost all I know about helping out, and gave me confidence to know I had done all I could to make another comfortable. They perhaps showed me something of what life must be like living more with any person in an interdependent way.
Wendy had around thirty five guests to her farewell at a local Football Club; most were carers, one a taxi driver, a smattering of others lived nearby. But it was clear that this was a community of significance to the guest of honour, who beamed unceasingly the whole afternoon. Some of us told stories about how we all benefited from and loved Wendy very much. Many a tear of joy and sadness was shed at the end of an era for all, the beginning of a new chapter for one.
Living with and alongside Wendy has taught me much about the value of my own life how to appreciate others. The caring community centred one one person, with their talents, virtues – and needs – is a great asset to the wider community, adding to the general swell of real compassion.
I worry for a world that would rather be rid of people like Wendy. I do wish it would open its eyes to see how having someone like her LIVING next door is a rich gold-mine of virtue for all! I hope Wendy’s new neighbours appreciate this.