“We say hello, chat in the street, in the driveway,” said Stephanie Browne, a foster care contact for Albuquerque Public Schools who has lived in this quiet, tidy neighborhood near Lomas and Tramway NE for nearly 15 years. “We know each other, but we don’t really know each other.”
Which is to say that most neighbors don’t know much about what goes on behind one another’s front doors.
But sometimes when a front door opens and a neighbor’s silent travails come spilling out, that becomes an opportunity for others to act, well, neighborly.
So it was for Browne and Wendy Solme, who moved into the home across the street with her husband, Joe, and their two children about the same time the Brownes moved into theirs.
The parents worked. The kids grew up. Life went on.
Then the ambulances and paramedics started showing up at the Solme house.
“I never really knew why,” Browne said. “But we heard they were for Joe.”
In January, an ambulance came one last time, but it was too late to save him. Joe Solme was 56 when he died.
Browne said she had never fully realized how much her neighbor had been struggling until Solme opened her front door.
And then Solme began to open up herself.
She was 18 and Joe was 21 when they met on Valentine’s Day 1982 at the grocery store where he worked. She thought he was cute. She thought he was cool, driving around in his royal blue 1971 Trans Am with a 455 HO engine – one of only two in town and the only one not in pieces on a garage floor.
She asked him to carry her Pepsi to her car. Five months later, they were married. Joe sold his Trans Am to pay for the wedding.
Two children came later. Wendy worked as a home health aide supervisor. Joe worked for a company contracted with Sandia National Laboratories until the contract ended six years ago. An old back injury that had flared up made it hard for him to find work, let alone stand or sit without pain. He was repeatedly denied disability pay.
Money grew tight. For two years, they went without gas to heat water. Baths were done with pans of water heated on the electric stove, the only part of the oven that worked. Warmth came from a wood stove when there was money for wood. Windows broken by would-be thieves stayed broken.
Joe began taking oxycodone, antidepressants and muscle relaxants for his back pain. He began mixing his pills with alcohol. When pain still howled, he upped the dose, sometimes emptying a bottle of 60 pills in five days.
“He became addicted,” Solme said. “He didn’t think he had a problem. And I couldn’t stop him.”
The ambulances came when Joe couldn’t stop himself, either, including Jan. 6, when Solme found him unresponsive in the living room. Although the official cause of death has yet to be determined, Solme said it’s likely that he became one of the thousands of Americans who die each year of opioid overdoses.
Browne said that when she was invited into Solme’s home, it was obvious how hard her neighbor’s life was.
“All she asked of me was, ‘Please don’t judge; please don’t judge,’ ” Browne said. “She is an example of many women who are survivors but who never ask for help.”
Browne decided to help anyway.
She entered Solme in a “Paint It Forward” contest sponsored by Magic 99.5 and KKOB-AM, along with Mike’s Quality Painting, owned by Mike and Miriam
Freeman, in which the winner gets a free interior paint job. Solme won.
Other charities, companies and neighbors pitched in as well.
Los Ojos de la Familia paid off Solme’s electric bill and bought groceries. Shawn and Ashley Ulmer of For the Good screen printing let Wendy’s granddaughter Tessa make T-shirts that read “Strong Is Beautiful.” Joann Luera of Timeless Images Photography shot portraits of Wendy’s granddaughter and nephew Izzy to replace old photos taped to cardboard.
The Pay It Forward Foundation replaced the broken windows and oven, paid the gas bill and provided Wal-Mart cards for toiletries and clothing.
Then on Saturday, the crew of Mike’s Quality Painting joined with neighbors to paint the interior of Solme’s home and exterior trim. They dined on food and coffee donated by Chick-fil-A, and later Mike Freeman fired up the grill to serve burgers and hot dogs to a group of about 50 volunteers.
It was, they said, a beautiful neighborly thing.
“I needed to find some light in these dark times, and here was light right in my own neighborhood,” Browne said. “And I feel like I know my neighbor now like a sister.”
Solme said she is thankful for a community and a neighborhood unwilling to let her keep her door closed.
“You forget sometimes that there are so many amazing people out there,” she said. “You forget that we are all not alone. I am not alone.”
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.