April 7 – Neighborly Compassion

by Madeline Sharples

We’ve lived next door to Sherry and her husband, Dave, for over twenty years, and she was always a person I avoided. Bob sometimes played racquetball with Dave, but I have never wanted to get socially involved with her. Even at Bob’s hint that they were wine lovers like us, I wasn’t interested.

I had always found her too loud – I could hear her yelling at Dave, her stepson, or their son, Steve, through both our exterior walls; too nosy – she always seemed to poke her nose outside whenever I was out in the garden; too domineering, and much too pushy. I couldn’t believe her chutzpah when she appeared at our door with her oldest daughter and a six-pack of beer as soon as she found out we had two young, handsome, male houseguests – my nephew and his friend – staying with us for a few weeks. That was the end of my patience.

But it all changed the day Paul died. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. She was there with calls and flowers and kind words,. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.

One night, right before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Sherry left a basket on my doorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered – “harvested” was the word she used – a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never needed to ask me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.

Among the items inside – each one separately wrapped – was a book about coping with the loss of a love – unlike most others. This one was in poetry – she knew I wrote poetry – and the first book I was able to concentrate on enough to read through after Paul died. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.

This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Sherry left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend.

I soon got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel that it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?

When I got more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket – a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells like lavender. It has hand-painted butterflies and the word “heal” printed on the silk. They are still there on my bedside table after all these years.

(Sharples, Madeline, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, Dream of Things, 2012)


Madeline Sharples is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide – in poetry and prose (Dream of Things) and co-author of Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press). She co-edited The Great American Poetry Show Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and wrote the poetry for The Emerging Goddess photography book (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her articles appear at Naturally Savvy and Aging Bodies and on her blog, Choices [madelinesharples.com]. She is currently working on a novel.  

Hall LightMadeline also produced a CD of her son’s music called Paul Sharples at the Piano, as a fundraiser to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide, her mission since the death of her son in 1999.


14 responses to “April 7 – Neighborly Compassion

  1. How often we judge people in our lives and then discover their other side. Love this piece!

  2. A lesson in knowing there are many sides to people despite the aspects of their personality that really irk us.

  3. Really beautiful, and the writing gives me courage to keep on writing. A lovely story of a tragedy and the power of loss

  4. This is a beautiful story. Can’t judge a book by it’s cover that’s for sure.

  5. I truly appreciate this story–filled with lessons we all need to remember.

  6. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    This story quietly reteaches the old adage: “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. I find it is a lesson I need to remind myself occasionally. It is human nature to make those “first sight” judgements. When we do, we often miss out on the truly meaningful.

  7. I was very much touched by your story, and so sorry to learn about your beloved son. I had a similar ‘friend’, who was quite difficult at times but, when my first husband died, she was there, highly efficient, quietly and took care of me for a while. We, who do have somebody like this in our life’s are fortunate, I think. I follow you now.

  8. Dear Linda and One Women’s Day. Thank you so much for posting this piece. I very much appreciate being part of the Story Circle Network community.

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