Scientists shower us with studies emphasizing the negative effects of isolation. Mental health declines. Heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes flourish. Meanwhile, my husband marvels over the health and wellness of coworkers involved with churches and clubs. I wince, imagining rooms full of chatty, optimistic people, dazzling us with blue-white smiles and small talk. We are introverts and keeping up with more than a few people at a time exhausts us.
So, we are the neighborhood family who keeps to themselves. We dispense cordial waves, check the mail at midnight, and blacken our house every single Halloween. Because we thrive on the information we glean in solitude, we watch instead of talk to gather data and plot future conversations.
Across the street from us live the Smiths. Juan and Maria are a decade older than us with grown children and a love for their lawn and garden. Lean and muscular, Juan resembles a petite Jason Statham. Every other day, he mows his grass and lavishes fertilizer on innumerable potted plants. The beauty of their property is not their only gift. As Maria and Juan putter about, legions of dog walkers and affable neighbors swing by to shower them with compliments. Their driveway is a soup kitchen of hospitality—open to all and fully nourishing.
Sometimes we do step across the street. Twice a year when birthday balloons float above their mailbox, we give happy hugs. I deliver a joke I looked up on google, like “Now the birthday candles cost more than the cake!” When offered a beer, we excuse ourselves and skitter home to watch festivities from behind our curtains.
We adore the Smiths for more than “the mere exposure effect.” What they do with their days charms us: driveway barbeques, bike rides in matching hoodies, and games of fetch with their big floppy mastiff.
Utter shock shook me when I peeked out for my daily snoop and saw an ambulance and fire engine, lights flashing. Adrenaline-soaked blood shot to my legs; I could have pushed the ambulance to a hospital faster than any driver. As anxiety squeezed my throat closed, I paced until they brought Maria out on a stretcher. I gaped through the curtains as Maria’s contorted, pale face lolled. Juan whisked a sheet before her, presumably to shield her from view.
I left my tiny peephole, loath to impede on their private moment. Trembling and tearful, I sat on the bed racing to put together a picture of what happened. Was this a heart attack? A stroke? A mental health crisis? What was so awful Juan had to conceal her? How could I help? Distraught, I called my husband at work. He reassured me that Maria was getting the help she needed and not to worry.
Later that day, when Juan came home, I slipped over to ask if Maria was okay. Juan disclosed that Maria had been experiencing worsening vertigo for the past few weeks and was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear. In Maria’s case, this was caused by tiny calcium deposits rolling around her inner ear disturbing her balance. When she woke up, the vertigo was so intense she could not make it to the bathroom without vomiting or toppling over. Juan called 911. To block the sunlight, which added to her dizziness, Juan held up the sheet when the paramedics wheeled her outside.
As Juan explained that Maria’s condition was benign, relief rushed through me. She would be released after positional manipulations moved her ear stones. Since my mom had been through a similar ordeal, I understood what Maria was going through. Flowers and food were in order.
A week later, Maria and I shared hugs and warmth as she told me firsthand how disturbing her vertigo attack was. Could you imagine being so disoriented that you don’t have the mental resources to fear for your life? Re-orienting her brain after her episode took a great deal of strength, she said. “I just can’t think or answer questions. All my energy goes to feeling level, balanced.” I hugged her and dabbed at a tear.
More heartfelt words were exchanged and I let her go to rest. Her example left me feeling strong and appreciated. In her driveway, Maria and I could conquer existential fears, support our children, and handle any crisis.
Months have passed and we still spy on the Smiths. They spot our creased curtains with a smile. Are we really so isolated, so different? Community and connectedness are unique for everyone. We can be healthy and feel loved from behind our curtains.