The Vine: August 22, 2012
Husband and I have a vacation home that we are able to visit every couple of weeks. We have a 73-year-old neighbor who waters our lawn and generally looks out for our house.
His wife of 31 years recently left him…took their only vehicle, and according to him closed out their bank accounts leaving him with nothing but his VA income of several hundred dollars a month. No fight, no warning, just a note, but apparently she had been planning it for a while. He is underwater in this mortgage, and it looks like he will lose his home. While we feel very bad for him, of course there is always the other side of the story, which we do not know.
Recently he's been making me feel a bit uncomfortable, and here's where I need some guidance. Last time we (husband and I) were speaking to him, he mentioned he had spoken to her and asked her what she thought was going to happen to her, and said he told her something along the lines of "you're fat, look at that huge gut and those floppy…" At which point I walked away. Next thing…he phoned our home on Sunday — I had told him to call whenever he needed to talk — and left a message saying everything was good and he'd see us soon. I didn't call him back. Monday he called, and when I answered he told me that Sunday had been a bad day, and that he had considered ending his life, but instead called the suicide prevention hotline and spoke to a counselor who was also going to come see him again on Tuesday. He also started again with the verbal abuse of his wife, which I deflected as best I could…I mean, I'm not going to listen to this no matter the situation, but I also don't want to hang up on him.
I am just getting the feeling that he is trying to manipulate me in some way…he seems to have attached himself to me, and while I'm fine with letting him vent and cry, I'm not going to be paying his mortgage, storing his furniture if he does get evicted from his home, or anything else that one of his children should be doing. Did I mention his children refuse to help him (again, according to him).
I'm torn…on one hand, how awful to have this happen at this point in your life. On the other, I don't know anything about their lives together, she must have had some reason for leaving, and I'm not sure what I can do for him other than listen…but I'm not cool with listening to him talking shit about her body, no matter what she did. One on hand, considering suicide? And on the other…I…I guess I just don't believe him. I cannot articulate why. I don't know what I'm asking exactly, just maybe some outside perspective. My husband is the kindest man I've ever met, and he wants to do anything he can to help, but I do not want to get taken for a ride by this man…financially OR emotionally. I've been in a situation before where I was manipulated, and this feels the same. You can tell me if I'm being a jerk, and I will listen, promise.
I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments if this letter makes it that far…I know this is long and can't really edit. Thanks for any advice you could offer…
If I understand you correctly, this is a two-part question: 1) What is your obligation to your neighbor? 2) If you chafe at said obligation, is that wrong/does that mean you're a bad person?
I'll take the second part first, because it's not wrong not to want to embroil yourself in Neighbor's marital drama, or take responsibility for his safety — which, by announcing to you that he considered killing himself, he has kind of forced you to do. You really scarcely know the man; what you've learned recently, you don't particularly like; and you resent having to play emotional caretaker, particularly when you sense that his psychic pain is more for show than genuine.
With that said, I do think that your past experiences getting manipulated have led to some inconsistency in your behavior. This isn't a judgment; it's a weird, delicate situation and he probably caught you off-guard. But I would point out that, on the one hand, you told him to "call whenever he needed to talk," but then you've also braced yourself for him to take advantage of you, and it kind of feels like you're looking for reasons to consider the circumstances a pain in the ass and not feel guilty about it. Has the neighbor actually asked you to, or hinted that you should, help with his mortgage or find room for his furniture? Or is it just something you fear he will ask for or hint about if you continue to show him conversational compassion? Have you told him in so many words that the body-shaming makes you uncomfortable and you can't listen to it? Or do you just sit and steam? (And as far as that goes…it's a break-up. People say shit. I wouldn't take that part of it so seriously.)
So, consider whether certain incidents in your past may affect how you see this set of circumstances. Then, deal with this set on its own merits. Your neighbor has expressed an intent to harm himself; you may not believe him and it may have passed, but you need to take it seriously, and you need to tell him you take it seriously. Either get in touch with one of his kids and hand Neighbor off to their care, or find the social-service agency that deals with elder care and report the problem to them, but if even a tiny part of you thinks that he might try to do away with himself, you will feel much better about overreacting or falling for a drama-king line than you will if you went "pffft" and then he took his own life.
In other words, yes, I think you should make sure he gets some help, but I also think you can do that and still ensure that's it's not entirely you and your husband he gets it from. You can operate from a sympathetic position of "it's hard to be him every day, these days," but still not think that obligates you to store his dinette set. Other people's problems are a tight-pants pain the ass sometimes and it's okay to admit that to yourself. Dealing with those problems and being a kind face doesn't make you a pushover. You'll figure out where the line is, don't worry.