My Aunt Ellen’s house is nestled in a cul-de-sac on Long Island in NY. She’s lived there for the past 25 years and many of our family parties have happened at her house. Across the street lives her neighbor Kate*, an Irish American woman in her 60’s who was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. Kate moved into Aunt Ellen’s neighborhood about 8 years ago and quickly became part of a circle of 7 neighbors. They communicate with each other throughout the week using a group text simply called “The Neighbors”.
It’s not uncommon for a spontaneous lawn party to happen in somebody’s front yard. It starts off as 2 people chatting, and the next thing you know, a group of people are sipping their beverages and chatting it up in front of one of their houses.
Like an extended family, the 7 take care of each other in various ways. For instance, on Sundays, my Aunt Ellen will often cook up a bunch of meals and take it over to Kate’s house.
“Oh Ellie, you didn’t have to do that,” Kate typically says.
“No problem at all,” my Aunt Ellen usually responds. Then they talk about how Kate’s 40 year old autistic son is doing. They talk about how Kate’s family lives far away and how she plans to visit them. They talk about Aunt Ellen’s grandkids. Then they talk about Kate’s cancer.
Kate had recently started chemo to treat her 3rd bout of cancer. Then Covid happened. This outbreak has changed how we normally interact with each other. My aunt’s neighbors still chat on group text and they still have their spontaneous meetings, but instead of sitting together and munching on snacks, they stand 10 feet away from each other when talking. They’re all concerned about Kate, because the chemo weakens her immune system. So the neighbors call her up whenever they go to the supermarket so that Kate doesn’t have to risk exposure to people who have a cold.
“I’m at the store, do you need anything?” my aunt will ask often ask Kate.
“Oh Ellie, I don’t want to be a burden,” Kate says without fail. Did I mention that she was Irish? But the neighbors always insist on buying stuff for Kate, and she gratefully accepts their help.
Just the other day, some of the neighbors were talking in the street about how disturbing the news on TV had been lately. It was wearing them down to the point that they had to turn it off for a while. Then Kate emerged from her house, walking quickly towards them, to the point that she was out of breath. She had just finished her latest round of chemo, so she still got short of breath very easily. My aunt braced herself for more bad news.
“I just had my scans done”, Kate said.
“Oh no…” the neighbors thought. “What’s wrong?” The neighbors asked.
“No, no. “It’s good news. The scans look good. And my cancer markers are normal!!” Kate said with a smile. She couldn’t wait to tell them.
Tears streamed down their faces. These were tears of relief. They had come to love Kate as if she were family, so the good news brought a collective release. Although they couldn’t hug, there was a warmth all around them. It reminded them how good it feels to be together, especially during these challenging times.
*Kate’s name was changed to preserve her confidentiality.