When my husband, Paul, and I bought our first home, we couldn't have asked for nicer next-door neighbors than Becky and Greg and their two boys. Within days of our moving in that February, they brought over a plate of cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood.
That spring I began to garden, and I got to know Becky through casual conversations struck as we worked outside. She was older than I was, and we were very different, but we made each other laugh, and it was impossible to not like Becky.
My son, Christopher, was just a baby when we moved in, but as soon as he began to walk, Becky told me she had talked with Greg, and they were going to be on the lookout for Christopher when pulling into or backing out of their driveway. I already knew Becky was a kind lady, but this seemed incredibly so. Of course, it was in her interest to avoid running over my boy, but it was her attitude that struck me.
Whereas I might have been annoyed at the thought of this constance vigilance, she didn't seem to mind a bit. She was genuinely concerned about Christopher's safety and waved away my thanks. It was nothing, just what neighbors do.
But I was so thankful. We were at the beginning of a long and exhausting journey diagnosing a variety of Christopher's disabilities. He was a late walker — taking his first steps at 16 months — but once he started, he went straight to running and didn't stop for years.
The summer he was 2 going on 3 years old, I spent the majority of each of my days chasing him around our house — literally. When the baby, my daughter Lydia, was napping, I tried to garden.
I kept Christopher right beside me with his own little tools, but if I looked down for a second he was off. As soon as I noticed, I would guess which way he went and run after him. He was usually enough ahead of me to be turning a corner just before I turned the one behind, so he was always out of sight, a scenario like a horrific version of Tom and Jerry. He had a hearing loss, but I frantically shouted his name until I caught him.
One day I made it all the way around the house and thought, "This is it: I have to call 911," when someone called my name. Coming around the corner was Becky holding Christopher's hand.
"I was upstairs, but I heard you call 'Christopher' one too many times," she said.
"Is everything all right?" shouted another neighbor, an older woman, down the block. She was standing on her front porch at the ready. Clearly she too had heard me calling too many times.
"We're all right!" I shouted back. "He's right here. Thank you!" She waved and then went back inside.
I know it was a small thing for each of those women, but I rank their actions up there as some of the kindest things anyone has ever done. They meant the world to me. That was 15 years ago, and I still can't tell this story without crying.
Later that summer Becky was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was working in my garden one morning when she came over to talk. It was right before she started chemotherapy. "I asked Greg if he would shave his head with me, and he said no!" She was laughing. Without even thinking I said, "I'll do it."
She stopped and looked at me. "Oh, Alison, you don't have to do that ..."
"But I want to!" I said.
"Oh, I can't ask you to," she said. She hadn't asked me; I was offering, but I didn't want to make a big deal about it and let it drop.
Becky started chemotherapy and soon her hair began to thin and fall out. I was reconsidering my offer; it wasn't the actual loss of hair that gave me pause, but the question of whether or not the gesture would help anything. I didn't want to make it about me. I talked it over with Paul. He had had cancer as a boy and thought I should do it.
I waited until after we had an important meeting with a surgeon about a surgery for Christopher. That night Paul shaved my head. The next day I wrote a little note for Becky and dropped it off on her front porch. Walking back to my house, I met her 6-year-old son in their driveway. When he saw my head he froze.
"Did you get cancer too?" he asked.
I told him I had shaved my head to show his mom I cared about her, and his chest visibly relaxed and he exhaled.
After Becky read my letter, we had a little cry together and that was that. Later that fall Christopher had his surgery with some complications that turned an overnight hospital stay into a week's, but he recovered and was soon thriving. Becky made it through, too — I can't remember how soon after, but her cancer was gone, and she was in remission. A few years later we moved away, and I'm sorry to say, we didn't stay in touch; we were in such busy times of life. And as strange as this seems, we were never really friends, just very good neighbors.
In the house we moved to, our neighbors were far away. The former owner was kind enough to introduce us to the closest ones, and everyone was friendly. There was a retired gentleman who lived about a mile away but owned a small hobby farm just across the road. We got to know him quite well, since my kids begged me every day to go see the horses.
One couple lived back in the woods behind our house; we would meet at our mailboxes or when they were walking their dog. We'd have convivial chats, but they were rare and fairly brief. The exception was the first year we had our dog, Jack. He managed to break out despite our fence at least once a week and make a beeline for our neighbors' house. We would find him sitting in the drive with one of their black Lab's toys in his mouth, ready to play. Fortunately they were dog lovers and easygoing, generally, so they didn't mind.
Back then, if you had asked me, I would have told you I didn't really have any neighbors, at least not the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar variety, but then, as regular readers know, my house burned down.
We were all home and in bed and escaped with the clothes on our backs. The sheriff, who was the first responder, called Paul's older sister, who picked us up at the scene. Later Paul and I returned to the house to talk to the fire investigator. People continually stopped by to check if we were OK and to offer help. One older woman rushed out of her car and ran across the driveway, her arms wide open.
“Is everyone safe?” she cried, embracing me.
I nodded and fell into her arms, not really knowing who she was.
“Thank God! Thank God!” she said. We clutched each other and sobbed. And then — as quickly as she came — she let go and dashed back to her car. Only later did I remember she was a distant neighbor whom Christopher and I had met while walking Jack. Later she returned, handed me a big, fat check and dashed off again.
Another neighbor saw the house on the way to church. Once she knew we were safe, she returned to her home, called the Red Cross and packed a bag of clothes for me as well as one for Paul. She loaded everything into our borrowed car and handed me a pen and notebook, all of which I tried to deflect because we had savings, we had insurance; we were fine.
"What do you need?" so many people asked.
I wanted to say nothing, but then I remembered something Becky had said when she was undergoing chemotherapy and I had asked her how I could help. "Anything anyone does for my kids helps me."
So I said, "Gift cards for books. For the children." That was how I began to receive and for a time it felt like everyone was our good neighbor.
There are many different ways to be a good neighbor but it begins simply: I see your need. I want to help. I'm here.
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