After a sudden loss, Dawn Anahid Mackeen found comfort in a surprising place—a note from a neighbor she’d never met.

By Dawn Anahid MacKeen
Updated May 16, 2018
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Diner table with photographs
Credit: Bryan Gardner

Not long ago, my elderly mother, Anahid, was watching CNN on her beige sofa when an ambulance screamed outside her home, drowning out the sound of the newscast. A fire engine whined, too, both vehicles screeching to a stop that September afternoon. Frantic shouts followed, prompting my 85-year-old mother to peek through the arched windows at the commotion. Cars have always collided at this accident-prone intersection in Los Feliz, a Los Angeles neighborhood adjacent to Hollywood, and in the pre-cellphone era, she used to usher the dazed drivers inside to use her phone and calm down with a glass of water.

“What is going on?” she asked the swarm of strangers after exiting her house.

“Some old man just died,” replied one. “No one knows who he is.”

My five-foot-two mother inched into the crowd and rose onto her sandaled toes to get a better look, spotting the man’s shoes: brown leather loafers with rubber soles.

They looked familiar. She glimpsed the man’s blue trousers. She had set out sky-blue trousers for her husband, Jim, my father, that morning. He’d left about two hours earlier to walk to 7-eleven. Then she saw the gallon of milk, flipped over on the strip of grass. He was going to buy some for their next morning’s breakfast and mail some bills.

“Brown shoes,” she thought. “Blue trousers. Milk. Brown shoes…blue trousers…milk.”

“That’s my husband,” she said aloud as the realization hit, to no one, to everyone.

In the transformed community of Los Feliz, where he’d lived for more than four decades, no one had recognized my father. At 82 years old, he had died in front of our neighbor’s two-story house, on the lawn where I’d searched for ladybugs as a child. Eventually, when the Italian owners relocated, a Lebanese family moved in. Once a week, my tall wasp of a father and my Armenian mother would stop by the family’s house for coffee and baklava. Later on, that family returned to Lebanon, and a parade of owners swung through the door as our immigrant neighborhood became progressively hip over the next two decades. Trendy boutiques and coffeehouses opened, as home prices soared.

When I learned by phone that he’d died, I collapsed onto the asphalt of the parking lot where I’d stood. My dinner with him the week prior had been our last. Driving home to see my mother, I couldn’t stop fixating on the lawn where he had toppled over: how long had he been suffering before someone noticed him? I pictured him alone, his glasses askew, the opposite of how I’d always envisioned his final moment, ringed by loved ones in a hospital.

To the old-timers of our neighborhood, he was a fixture, always smiling, helping organize solstice hikes to mount Hollywood and even appearing in advertisements to elect the district’s then-longtime city council member. He attended pancake breakfasts for the fire department and ran his own local advocacy group with my mother after he retired as an auditor for the state, opening each meeting with a memorized joke. Still, that last day, no one had recognized him.

He’d walked under the canopy of trees down the sidewalk like he’d done thousands of times before, past the home of his Armenian friend, who had recently died, past another corner house, whose owners had rented their property at double, triple the rents of the past. One of my father’s favorite destinations was the iconic house of pies, a bare-bones diner disregarded by many newcomers. To quell his sweet tooth, he would order black coffee and a slice of warm pumpkin pie. He continued this tradition behind my mother’s back even after his first heart attack—his missions our secret. “Well, why not?” he’d explain, with a toothy grin, his arms swung wide in enthusiasm.

In the days that followed his death, I couldn’t eat or sleep, the scenarios torturing me. Had he been calling out for help? For me or my mother? To keep her company, I stayed in my old bedroom. I stared at photographs, these snapshots of a life that was now gone. In his closet, I drew his short-sleeve brown shirt to my face and breathed in his scent—that familiar one of sweat and soap I’d never thought about but now felt as vital as air. How long was he lying there? Could he have been saved? A few days after his death, when my eyes had swollen from crying so much I could barely see, a note arrived in my mother’s black mailbox: “My name is Renee…I am the neighbor who was with your Jimmy when he became ill on Monday. You and Jimmy have been on my mind. I just wanted to check in with you if you don’t mind. Could you please call me at the number below?”

A woman entered the house of pies and looked around, her face soft and framed by auburn hair. Instinctively I knew it was Renee. When we had spoken on the phone days earlier, her voice was warm, welcoming. In my bag, I had pictures of my father smiling, alive. I wanted her to glimpse the man behind the stranger on that corner. As Renee drew closer, my mother and I rushed to hug her. Over mugs of coffee, Renee began to tell us about the afternoon he passed away.

She had been on her way to pick up her son from elementary school. Driving east along the avenue from her home, she saw a man strolling. “Well, look at you,” she thought. “Out taking a walk on this beautiful day with your hat and groceries.” she noticed his Kangol cap snug on his bald head, the fine way he dressed, his plaid shirt tucked into belted blue trousers.

Renee couldn’t take her eyes off him. Passing him, she glimpsed him bending down and placing his left hand on his knee. What is he doing now? Is he looking at a plant? Smelling a flower? Entranced, she checked her rearview mirror to see if he had stood up. Instead he collapsed under a tree. “I didn’t even turn around. I just put my car in reverse,” she told us.

He lay on his left side, with vomit pooled on his lips. His blue eyes were open, staring outward. She checked his pulse and couldn’t detect one.

She called 911. “What time was it?” I interrupted. I wanted to know the exact moment he had left us. That afternoon, I had had physical therapy and almost called him before my 3 p.m. appointment. She studied her phone: “It was at 2:39 p.m.” it was that very moment. Sometimes I think the sound of me reaching out could have pulled him back from the divide. It’s a hopeful, irrational thought that fleets and returns, baiting me back for more.

Crouching beside my father, Renee touched his arm, fearful he’d choke if she turned him. She sensed a vacancy within. “It wasn’t like pulling a baby out of a swimming pool. You had a different feeling. That his time had come.”

On the phone, the 911 operator requested an address. Renee relayed the intersection, but the dispatcher required the house number. “I didn’t want to leave him,” she told us, her voice breaking. When she returned from the 100-yard trip to the house’s front, he was blue.

Another bystander stopped, another new arrival to the neighborhood. “He’s gone,” the man pronounced, as he closed my father’s eyes and said a prayer. Still, the 911 operator instructed Renee to begin CPR. She pumped his chest hard until the ambulance arrived.

Nearby, Renee saw the grocery bag and a gallon of milk, still cold and dappled with condensation, and wondered who was waiting for it.

A crowd of bystanders soon gathered around my father, these concerned strangers and neighborhood newcomers, and eventually my mother joined them too.

My father’s grocery bag contained the milk. But it also held sweetness: two Nestlé crunch bars and two bags of planters peanuts. He would have been counting down as he neared home, the anticipation of a dessert always bringing him nearly as much joy as the consumption. On his last day, my father had decided to treat himself, to say, “Well, why not?”

Because of Renee, I now know my father was enjoying his final walk around the neighborhood he so loved. He didn’t stagger to his death. Knowing the massive heart attack claimed him quickly brought me relief.

A year or so later, Renee contacted me when her own sister died unexpectedly. In pain, she’d sought out a psychic for answers to the unanswerable. Instead of her sister, though, the clairvoyant informed her someone else was coming through: “A fatherly figure named James.” Renee had never stopped thinking about my dad and wanted me to know. On the phone, we cried about our loved ones and comforted each other.

My father had as beautiful a death as one could have had. He had touched one last person, a stranger, his happiness easy to spot, even from a passing car. And this stranger, in turn, had touched us. It didn’t matter that no one had recognized him in a district that had become filled with newcomers. In this large city, where one can easily feel alone, my father wasn’t on the day it mattered most.

About the Author: Dawn Anahid MacKeen is an investigative journalist and the author of The Hundred-Year Walk, which chronicles her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian genocide and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.