The other day I received an email from a man named Jim, an in-town friend of my perpetually out-of-town landlord, Corbin. Jim wrote: "Sorry to break the news to you this way, but Corbin passed away last week after a 1.5 yr battle with cancer." Jim's emails are usually typed in blue font. About a year ago Corbin informed me over the phone that Jim would be taking care of maintenance since he lives so much closer. "I'm having some health problems and the distance makes it hard for me to get to the city."
"Health problems" is a vague summary that doesn't invite further questioning, especially toward my landlord who I only physically met three times. It's also a choice of wording that inspires both curiosity and morbidity. The purposeful vagueness suggests a degree of severity, a condition one is not recovering from but enduring.
In June Jim came by to fix a broken pipe under our kitchen sink. I asked him how Corbin was doing.
He moved his head from side to side, not in a head shake, but in gesture of ambivalence. "He has good days and bad days. He's hanging in there."
Once Jim said that, Corbin seemed as good as dead. This is why I wasn't too surprised to receive the blue email. My roommates and I had discussed Corbin's death as an imminent possibility. We talked about it in a distant and disconnected way, as though it were a simple event that may or may not inconvenience the future of our living situation, on par with a raise in the rent or the addition of an annoying neighbor. We were rightfully worried that an unexpected, or expected, death might be immediately followed by a FOR SALE sign impaled into the soggy mound of mulch in between our house and the sidewalk.
Despite our suspicions and the distant and practical concerns around losing a landlord, I was a bit sad. I've dealt with my share of death—most on a level more intimate than I would have wanted. Sometimes I feel hardened, unable to experience loss. But I hardly knew Corbin and surprised myself with the lingering sense of bereavement I experienced. On a purely sympathetic level, his death was poignant. Corbin was a young man, he died at 44. He had a wife and two young children, ages four and one. I found out from an online obituary that it was brain cancer. I don't know his family, but I imagined the long grieving process on which they were about to impart. This is not extraordinary; it would make anyone sad.
On a more selfish level, I found myself dwelling on the minor rifts this death would cause—no longer making my rent checks payable to "Corbin Shays" (I removed a nearly three-year-old faded index card with his name and mailing address from the surface of my fridge) or taking his number out of my phone (I haven't done this yet). These are little changes whose false extremity will fade in weeks, if not less.
The greatest loss seems to be the loss of a connection to some element of my past, as though Corbin's death somehow severs some of the threads binding me to certain memories. I remember the day I met Corbin. The summer of 2008 my roommate Bobbie Sue and I were house hunting, looking to upgrade from the moldy and cramped apartment where we were living. I had seen an ad for this house on craigslist, but it was out of our price range. Weeks later I rediscovered the ad with a considerable drop in the rental price, transforming what was once "keep dreaming" to "doable." I scribbled the stats on a yellow post-it that now lives on my bedroom wall by the mirror. It reads:
The most moving thing is the exclamation point. I remember the excitement of finding that ad. I remember riding my crappy old schwinn to the house in the heat of a Portland July and arriving a half hour before the open house began. I was first. I sat on the front steps, taking deep breaths and saying to myself, "This house is yours. You've got it."
There were at least 30 people at that open house, but I was ready. I filled out an application while I patiently waited for the owner, a short man wearing a plain t-shirt tucked into carpenter pants, to listen to handfuls of people trying to sell themselves as tenants. After some of the crowd had cleared out I walked right up to him with a check written out for $1400 and told him I wanted the place. It was like everyone else melted away. We walked out to his truck to get an advanced copy of the lease. He extended his hand and introduced himself. Corbin.
"I have a good feeling about you," he said. "I usually trust my gut, and I have a good feeling about you."
I rode my bike over the bridge to work to tell Bobbie Sue the good news. Riding in the late afternoon haze I was winded but smiling uncontrollably all the way. This was a moment of hopefulness and possibility.
Corbin's death removes me one more step from this moment, from my own past, from a memory I now seem to have a little less opportunity to retrieve. When we lose people, we are losing some of the tissue that connects us to everything and everyone. He was just my landlord, I barely knew him, but for a few moments I'll float above this loss, slightly less tethered to the world I think I know.