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Her name was Norma. She lived alone. She had a penchant for feeding stray cats (and, for that matter, the raccoons living underneath the building).
That is all I knew about Norma, the elderly neighbor who lived in the apartment unit directly behind me. For all intents and purposes she was a stranger, our only conversations brief and by coincidence at the dumpster.
She never had visitors -- even on holidays -- and she rarely left home, which irked me because she had the best parking space in the complex. About three years ago she called the police to complain about the neighborhood kids being too noisy while playing in the carport, but really they were just being kids.
When Downey police and firefighters descended on her apartment unit Saturday, I knew something was wrong. When the firefighters packed up and left after only 10 minutes, and the police stuck around all afternoon, I knew something was terribly wrong.
When the L.A. County Coroner's van pulled in to the driveway, I felt sick to my stomach.
The landlord was downstairs, so I assume she notified authorities out of concern after Norma failed to send in her rent. That is only an assumption because I didn't ask, for fear of being called nosy.
It's painful to speculate about Norma's last days. I hope she died quickly, in her sleep, void of pain and loneliness.
I'm wrecked with guilt also. I should have made a better effort to know her. I should have checked on her on those hot summer days.
I should have been a better neighbor.
Norma was a strong-willed woman and probably too proud to accept help from others. That's what I tell myself, anyway, and I'm likely making excuses.
Norma is gone and soon her apartment will be refurbished in preparation for a new tenant. Time stops for no one. But Norma did not die in vain -- she taught this person the importance of looking out for your neighbors because sometimes you are all they've got.
Though unintentional, that lesson was Norma's gift to me, and for that I am grateful.
Thank you, Norma, and rest in peace.