Saturday, May 27, 2023

My Neighbor Noel

As I passed the house, she was walking to her front door.  M is a sturdy little Vietnamese woman with an upturned face and a sweet, hesitant manner, a neighbor I've gotten to know over the years.

She saw me, and stopped.  "David," she said.  "Pastor.  Wait.  Wait."  There was urgency in her tone, and as she hurried over to talk with me, I already knew what she was going to say.

"Noel.  Noel died.  He died."

Noel Gueugneau was an...interesting...human being.  He was a French expatriate, lean and craggy in his late middle age, with a bold Roman nose and angular features.  His hair, when it was not buzzed to stubble, was a wild shock above deeply set eyes that peered sharply out from under a heavy brow.  His chin, covered in a permanent grey white grizzle, his mouth clearly the result of years of neglect.   I'd first encountered Noel ten years ago while walking our then-puppy.  He'd come rushing out of his home as I passed.  "Excuse me, Mister, please, please can you help me?"  

What he needed help with, it turned out, had something to do with disbarring a lawyer who had betrayed him, and a neighbor who had poisoned his dog, and United Airlines, and unnamed agencies that were surveilling his house with white lasers.  On some days, depending on the story, it went all the way up to Hillary Clinton.

Noel was paranoid and delusional.  Like so many paranoid delusionals, he was an intelligent human being.  He had once been a mechanical engineer, before his mind shattered, before his intelligence turned to creating dark connections in the world that didn't exist.  Everyone was against him.  Everyone was ABUSING him, and the conspiracy was global and extensive.  He was the VICTIM, and he was angry, because of course he was angry!  He had been ABUSED!

I would challenge that occasionally, as he ranted at me about some global plot against him.  He would have none of it.  "Who are you to tell me what is real?  It's my life!  I know my life!  And you, with your stupid imaginary god?  You think you can tell me what is real?"  He would laugh, scornfully.  

Noel had numerous ailments of mysterious and varying natures.  Some were real.  Some were not.  All were, for him, caused by poison or malicious malpractice.  He walked stooped over, often leaning on a cane or a large stick.  Sometimes he would forget to be sick, and for a moment or two, would walk and move normally, with a wiry strength.  Then he'd realize his disability insurer might be monitoring him, and a limp would return.  Most of his pain was real, though.  He constantly sought treatment, and would disappear for months, as he journeyed to Southeast Asia for esoteric non-Western alternative treatments for the aforementioned ailments.  I would try, over the years, to steer him to mental health support, but...well.  He wanted none of that.  "They just want to steal my house!  They'll steal it!"

Noel was also a hoarder, his basement packed floor-to-ceiling with files and amassed possessions. For years, in the driveway, an old 1950s-era Ford truck, up on blocks, coated with primer.  His back yard was filled with nonfunctional lawn equipment, a couple of old cars, a rusted surplus cop Harley, and countless other items that might have had value had they not been sitting out in the rain for years.  His home was festooned with cameras, some operational, most not.  There were ten locks on the front door.  The only things he didn't have were internet and a cell phone, because those were only there to spy on him.  

In that I will admit he had a point.

He was continually approaching people to help him fight "the ABUSE," and more often than not, they were Christians.  Not because he liked Christians.  Christians like myself were, for Noel, delusional fools.  But we were convenient in a pinch, and compelled to offer help by our faith in the god he denied.  "You call yourself a Christian," he'd scoff, when I'd tell him no to some insane request.  "You say you're a pastor!  You're supposed to help me!  What sort of terrible Christian doesn't help a victim of abuse!"  He'd go from church to church, and people would try to assist him.  That would last until he'd become convinced they had stolen things from him, and start accusing them.  Catholics.  Baptists.  A couple of eager but naive Mormon missionaries.  That lawyer who had betrayed him by not suing the neighbor who was "sneaking into his house to steal his things."

Despite all of this, I consistently spent time with Noel, and helped him with some of his less psychotic projects.  I went with him to appointments with quack doctors.  I drove him to the airport in the dead of night.  I helped him move several tons of heavy Virginia clay he had taken from a construction site and dumped in his driveway.  I would occasionally take a fistful of bills from him, so I could buy him something online that he said he needed.  Those things were almost never used, and just added to the hoard.  

I set boundaries, because one must.  After several angry outbursts that ended with him yelling at my back as I walked away, and repeated rants about how lazy and poorly raised my sons were because they wouldn't come do work for him, I stopped walking by his house with my dog. 

But I didn't shut him out entirely.

I worried about M, who lived with him.  He would complain about how horrible she was, how abusive, how badly she treated him, and I knew it was the dark shadow cast by the truth of his anger.  Noel could become belligerent at the drop of a hat, and when he did...when he yelled at me...I would just turn around and walk away.  But she didn't, and I was of course concerned for her, and would pay attention to her affect and her physical appearance when I saw her.  

Noel would rumble occasionally about self-harm, too, dancing around the edges of it when I wouldn't do as he asked.  "Are you threatening to harm yourself?" I would say, gently but firmly.  "Because if you are, I'll call the county and make sure you get help."  He would back off.  He talked about guns, too, and if that talk had gone differently, I'd have raised an alarm.  "This abuse needs to end!  If I were American, I would just buy a gun," he would growl.  "You stupid Americans and all of your stupid guns."  

In that, I was thankful he was still very French.

Noel hated everyone, and hated himself, and trusted nothing but his own delusions.  In the end, as his real ailments took over, that distrust killed him.  He refused to allow M to call an ambulance as he lay dying, refused to have his life saved by the doctors who he believed were all set against him.

And yet for all of that, I will confess that I grew fond of Noel.  Yes, he was an aggressively psychotic Frenchman, but he was my aggressively psychotic Frenchman.  He could be funny.  He could seem, at times, filled with a boyish enthusiasm about things.  He was remarkably handy, capable with tools and gifted at repairing things.  I would offer him a portion of the harvest from my garden, bags of greenbeans or handfuls of berries, and I could see his surprised pleasure that someone was giving him a gift unasked.  When his soul moved briefly out of the shadows of his fear and hatred, he was entertaining to talk with.  When he'd go off on one of his journeys to Asia, I'd wonder about him, and when he returned, loping up to my door to ask for something or complain about the Abuse, I would greet him with a smile, and welcome him back, and tease out the stories of his odd adventures.  I was genuinely happy to see him, and he perceived that.   

I could see, in those good moments, flickers of the soul Noel could have been, had life gone differently.  A Noel who hadn't turned against his own family, who didn't constantly rage against the world around him and lash out at those who tried to help him.  That Noel, still sly and funny and iconoclastic, is only known to the God he denied.

"Who is your neighbor?" Jesus presses those of us who follow him.  Noel Gueugneau was my neighbor.

My neighbor Noel was a broken soul, desperately, utterly, completely alone.   That I gave him moments of respite from his isolation is all I could do for him.  "Noel trusted you," M said to me, as we talked about his death. "You were a friend."  

Which, as I will miss his presence, I suppose I was.

Adieu, Noel.  A Dieu.