Tracy and I got our first apartment together when she moved from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando in late 1996. We were just starting our life together as a couple, finally living in the same zip code, and found a nice little 900 square foot place off Conway on the southeast side of Orlando in an apartment complex called Valencia. It was an upstairs apartment with an interior private stairwell. Next door to us lived Nancy.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of Nancy, this transplanted New York/New Jersey single lady in her mid-50s who at first struck me as kind of nosy. But as Tracy and I got to know her, I realized she wasn’t nosy at all. Rather, she was a genuinely interested in us and had immediately taken a liking to us. She grew to become involved in both our daily routines and part of the overall fabric of our lives. Nancy was a guardian angel looking over us, a surrogate parent in the geographical absence of our own, a sounding board and voice of wisdom for two young adults trying to find their way in the world together.
It wasn’t all a one-way street, though. We looked in on each other, neighbors in the most comforting sense of the word. When Nancy had knee surgery, we had a system down where I would check in on her regularly and help her with whatever she needed, and Tracy would make dinners for her. Nancy had her cat, Magic. We soon brought home Monty, our Dachshund puppy. And we looked out for each other’s pets and shared the ups and downs of the loving them.
When she told us her brother was the Emmy-nominated director of Saturday Night Live, it was completely without pretense. When she told us she had left the convent and returned to secular life, it was completely without ordeal. When her sister Mary came to visit Nancy, it was a given that we would all spend time together, out to dinner and visiting. When our parents would come in town, we were sure to introduce and include Nancy. She was always doing something to enrich her well-being… reading, painting, writing, whatever. She was a continually fascinating character, and we grew to love her and rely on her.
After Tracy and I were married, we moved up the street to Lake Underhill. We still kept in touch with Nancy regularly, getting together as often as our busy schedules would allow. We moved back north within a year, leaving our Florida friends behind. But I ended up traveling to Orlando numerous times for work over the next few years, and would always make time to meet with Nancy. By then, she had moved on from Valencia, too. She now had a small house and still had Magic by her side. We planned a February 2006 family trip to Orlando, the first time Tracy would be back in the Sunshine State and the kiddo’s first Disney World vacation. We got together with Nancy at P.F. Chang’s at the Mall at Millennia, and she got to meet our son for the first time.
We have always exchanged Christmas cards, and would send the occasional email or make the infrequent phone call, but Nancy has always been in our hearts over the intervening years. But this year, we didn’t get a Christmas card from Nancy. It didn’t go unnoticed, but the holidays are ironically sometimes too busy to actually follow up on things like that and soon it passed completely from our minds.
But one night last week, as we were sitting down to spend some family time together, my cell phone rang. The caller ID registered a 201 area code, and it was obvious it wasn’t from a number already in my phone’s contacts. I answered, and it was Mary sounding hauntingly like Nancy. She began to apologize and explain who she was. I gently interrupted her and told her of course I remember her. She then told me that she was calling because Nancy had passed away on January 7 from a brain tumor.
I was stunned, feeling like a horrible friend for not following up with Nancy at the holidays. As Mary and I talked over the next 15 or 20 minutes, I could feel a Nancy-sized hole opening up in my heart. Tracy and I are both still reeling from the loss, belated though it may be. We are grateful for the time we shared with Nancy, and thankful Mary came across my cell phone number among Nancy’s things and thought enough to reach out to us.
Our thoughts are with Nancy’s family now. And Magic, who is still going strong at 15. Mary told me she always assumed she’d grow old with her sister, but she also told me that she believes that every time you think of someone who’s passed away, they are looking down and thinking of you as well. I hope Nancy’s smiling as she looks down on our family and realizes the positive influence she’s had on us.