I returned from vacation to sad news. My next door neighbor, Jane, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and the day before we left the doctors told her it was untreatable. Two days later, Jane passed away.
From what I knew of her, Jane was a wonderful person- sweet, smart, funny. But truth be told, since we moved in a year ago, I’ve probably only had a dozen conversations with her. Most revolved around keeping an eye on each other’s houses when we were out of town, or the obligatory exchange of cookies at Christmas. She and her husband have lived on this block for more than a half century. She was always so sweet and welcoming, always willing to talk. And I was always in too much of a hurry. I’d wave as I passed by on my way to the store, the gym, or wherever I happened to be going.
At her memorial I had the chance to speak at length with her sister, and learned more about Jane and her life in that half hour than I had in the past year. And as I sat there listening to how Jane and her husband had met, what their house had been like when they first moved in, it struck me that in the past year I’ve been running around like a crazy person. Part of that is the combination of having a small child paired with seemingly nonstop deadlines–I had to squeeze work in whenever possible, and every other spare moment was consumed by parenting and keeping our household running.
And what got lost in all that rushing around was getting to know someone like Jane, a lovely woman who taught high school English for decades, loved reading, and lived right next door.
Coming off a weekend where I had also been completely shut off from the internet and telephone, and yet (miraculously!) survived, it was eye opening. I realized that I’ve been spending so much time working on my books and maintaining virtual relationships on social networking sites, I’ve been terribly negligent at building them with the people all around me.
Part of this might be due to living most of my adult life in cities–in most of the apartments I rented in New York, neighbors were only dealt with when they were doing something unpleasant and/or inappropriate, like playing their bongos at 3AM or letting their snakes roam the halls at night (both of which happened in one building on the Upper West Side).
Yet in the suburbs where I grew up, I have distinct memories of neighbors stopping by to introduce themselves when we moved in- and of my mother baking up a storm whenever a moving truck showed up at the house down the block. But that’s never happened to me in San Francisco or New York. And that’s a shame.
While we were gone, there was also a terrible gas main explosion in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. Numerous homes were destroyed, four people so far are confirmed dead. And some of the most amazing stories to emerge from the incident involved neighbors rushing to each others’ aid, shuttling people to hospitals, getting them out of burning buildings. Many of those people were apparently just meeting for the first time.
So I’m going to make an effort to get the know the people around me better. I’ll be spending less time on listservs and SN sites. And the next time a moving truck shows up on our block, I’ll bake cookies and bring them over.