“I hope you don’t mind, but I put you down as my next of kin. I don’t have anyone else,” my neighbor informed me Friday night as I picked him up from the hospital.
What might have been just a neighborly act suddenly became something much more. Here was a lonely, isolated man asking me to be his family, to be his next of kin. He had no one else. All his family were gone or lost. He had no children. For over a decade he has lived alone with his little dog. Up until a year ago last August he was an able-bodied, financially independent man. Then with a slip and a fall his entire life changed.
Knocking his head on the kitchen counter, my neighbor laid on his floor for three days. No one knew of his accident until someone stopped by for an unknown reason. His dog sat by his head waiting. He spent the next six weeks in the hospital. He suffered permanent neurological damage to his head, leg and hand.
In early spring I had been told about this neighbor as someone who might need some help with yard work. I tried multiple times to meet him but it never worked out. I was able to tell some of the men in our missional community about him and they were able to connect. On Wednesdays, and other times over the summer, a couple of them would take him a hot meal and talk with him. Sometimes they would take him shopping or help with yard work. Last Wednesday it was time for he and I to finally meet.
Our initial meeting was brief, so it was with surprise inside but a calm face outside that I accepted the kinship of my neighbor that Friday night. However, it wasn’t until I was helping him settle into his place that night that I realized the full scope of what this man needed.
“I have a DNR [Do Not Resuscitate order] on file at the hospital. You can make whatever decisions you think are necessary,” he informed me.
This man chose me, a near complete stranger, to be his end of life proxy. He had no one, absolutely no one he trusted other than me. He might have chosen one of the men with whom he’d built up a relationship over the last few months. Instead, he chose me.
I’m not afraid of the responsibility, but I am intrigued by his decision. What seems to be the only reason he would choose me over the others is that I live in the neighborhood. I’m not coming from outside to help him. I know the men in our group treat him with utter respect and dignity, giving him little reason to adopt a charity-receiver posture. They are friends. Yet they don’t live here. They are from outside. I’m here. This is my home, just like it is his.
Friday night I laid in bed thinking about my neighbor, his isolation and loneliness. I also thought about our missional community which is very much family. We talk like family, adopt each other like family, and look out for each other like family. We aren’t perfect at it, but we have each other’s backs. Where most of us were once isolated, segregated or alone, we now have each other to pour into and lend a hand. I think of the single parents among us and their kids. They are my sisters and brother, my sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. I think of the young men and women who are like little brothers and sisters. I think of the YBS teens who are like my children. We are family. An odd, untraditional, diverse, fun family made so by God.
So many of my neighbors are just like this man. They either do not have family or are so estranged from them that family is a joke. Yet we all need family. We all need to belong. As I got to know my neighbor more on Saturday, I recognize the longing for belonging within him. I also recognize how hard that would be given his pattern of isolation and independence.
My heart breaks for my neighbor. Tears come to my eyes as I recall the longing in his voice for family. Always grateful for whatever help is given, he doesn’t want to be a burden not realizing that this is exactly why I and my family are here. For he doesn’t realize that by making me next of kin, he has also inherited my amazing family. To us he is not a burden but a privilege. Family is not a burden but a lovely responsibility. We are blessed to come alongside him and share life with him. This is why we are here. It is why I am here.
I am next of kin to my neighbor because I am all he has. My question for you, do you dare to be next of kin for your neighbor? Will you be there when the time comes?