I hadn’t seen the neighbor behind our house for a few days, which is rare because she’s got this garden she’s been tending for 40 years now and she’s always pruning, weeding, transplanting. When the humidity is 107 percent and it’s 107 degrees, the 80-some year-old woman is still out there, picking up leaf by leaf, placing each into the yard-waste bag.
Louisa and I took a walk today with the dog, loping past our neighbor’s house — no sign of life. I was a bit nervous about ringing the bell (“Hi, are you trapped under something heavy?”), so I noted which curtains were open and that her recycling can wasn’t out, and we walked home.
In our driveway a few minutes later, dread held me from going inside. “We’ve got to go back,” I told Louisa. We locked the dog in the house and traced our steps around the block her house. The same curtains were open; the house still was quiet.
I prayed, hard. (Really, what would I do if she were trapped under something heavy?) I would’ve sworn the driveway was bigger last time I had to walk it. The doorbell was quieter last time I pushed it. The storm door was less stormy the last time I knocked on it. I girded my loins and knocked once, twice. How did I become the kind of stalker neighbor who does welfare checks every time someone veers from their routine?
Louisa stood in the driveway, munching grapes from a vine that hangs along a fence we passed. “What if she’s not here?” She was unaffected.
“I don’t –”
And then the door opened — OH THANK GOD.
“I’m so glad you stopped in!” she said first, pulling the door shut behind her as she came out with a cane. “You’ve got to see my flowers. Come, let’s look.” She’d been in pain, she said, and couldn’t get outside in the last few days, so she wanted to do a welfare check on her garden. She’s got perennials on top of annuals in pots, in dirt, and drooping over hanging baskets. Right now her black-eyed susans pop yellow behind pink roses, fuchsia geraniums, lime-green-leaved hostas. And as she showed me new asters and cherry tomatoes, all I could think was “I’m so happy you’re upright.”
Rain drops began to fall as we made it to the side yard. “Those black-eyed susans self-seed. This guy wouldn’t be here if I knew he spread here.” Drizzle became a downpour. We said our goodbyes, see you laters, stop by anytimes.
Louisa and I ran home dodging in and out from under trees, soaked from my flat-ironed hair to my flip flops.
Sort of a non-story, right?
Yes, if you were hoping for a “Rescue 911” story.
But no, it’s not a non-story if you consider the incremental change in the way I view neighbors — neighbors were people whose eyes you avoided if you could help it. Who listened to weird music too loudly and grilled food you’d never get to eat and whose cars woke you up too early in the morning. Neighbors, especially those whose last names we didn’t know and who we didn’t have more than a backyard fence in common, were just people who lived in proximity.
A few months ago, our church did a series called “The Art of Neighboring,” based on a book I read last summer. The gist: It’s one thing to know Jesus told us to love our neighbors — it’s another thing to do that thing, making the word “love” a verb. (And what if Jesus meant our actual neighbors?) Doing this is much easier when it’s the woman and her cute preschooler from across the street, stopping by with a mug of coffee.
So yesterday afternoon I carried all those thoughts — the very sermon I preached at four different churches, actually: “do we live in a way that makes us available to others?” Um, I’m an anxious introvert: I worry you’re trapped under something heavy, and then I worry that I won’t be able to get out of a long conversation if you’re not. If loving your neighbors meant simply reading a book on your stoop and saying “hi” to people as they walked by with their dogs, I’d be winning. Apparently it’s more than that.
But I want to be the kind of person who is available like that. So we go over there and go over there and go over there — and really, the flowers do look more amazing from that side of the fence.
As I was changing into dry clothes after our jaunt home in a monsoon, I asked Louisa if she knew why we went to the neighbor’s.
“Yes,” she said.
“To see how she was doing. Cuz we hadn’t saw her for a long time.”
“It was polite.” It was.