I was washing the dishes in the kitchen last night, listening to Maggie playing in the yard, happily enjoying the gorgeous weather that we have been blessed with. She was alternating between the familiar ‘hoot’ that I know so well, and reciting passages from Dora with great dramatic flare. I was thinking about how the sounds of Maggie must be so familiar to the neighbours by now. Even the ones who don’t know her well would surely know her to hear her.
And like how a certain scent or sound, a swatch of fabric, or the taste of a familiar spice combination can catapult us back into a memory that we haven’t thought of in years, my mind was sent backward by 15 years.
We were living in a small town outside of Ottawa, and had just moved into our first house. We felt like grown-ups, and I’m quite sure we looked like grown-ups, but really we were so so young. Shortly after we moved in, I met the lady who lived next door. She introduced herself and told me that they have 3 children. She mentioned that she had a son who has autism, and that if I should ever see him outside by himself, I should come let them know right away. She said that they had locks that would keep that from happening, but that you just never know.
We didn’t have kids. I had never really been around kids. I remember feeling vaguely alarmed that there could be this crisis during which I wouldn’t know what to do, and that her son might get hurt. I don’t remember if it occurred to me how she must feel. That she might alternate between being terrified by all the ‘what-ifs’ of what could happen if her son got out, and the self-preserving need to not even think about it at all, because it’s too scary. No…I’m certain I never thought about any of that.
Ignorance is bliss isn’t it?
The winter went on. And on. And on. I had never seen so much snow in my life. Ottawa is only a 5 hour drive away, so I didn’t think the weather would be all that different from home.
We were regularly getting 25cm dumped on us, and still expected to get to work. If we get that much here, the city shuts down. Snow was being hauled away from the suburban curb-sides in dump trucks. I had never seen that before. We didn’t have a snowblower or a service because we were delusional rookies, and former apartment dwellers. No idea what we had gotten ourselves into.
And so we shovelled. And shovelled. And seemed to get nowhere. We eventually just gave up on digging out our second car, and carpooled by necessity. We were both working really long hours at our jobs…Nerdguy trying to prove himself in the high-tech boom, and me living the life (or lack thereof) of an accounting grunt during tax season. The day that our neighbour dug us out with his 4-wheeler felt like a gift from the heavens. And although we had a great appreciation for that act of kindness then, we have a whole new appreciation for it now, knowing what we know.
That their lives were hard. That finding time to clear his own driveway, let alone ours, was likely a huge challenge. That it was an even bigger gift than we could have imagined at the time. And also that he probably felt satisfaction in being able to help us in a tangible way. To control something in his day, when so much in his life was beyond his control. Like the worrying. And the challenges.
Sometimes when I can’t solve a problem, or I feel like I don’t have control over something I like to help someone else solve their problem instead. It makes me feel like there are some things that I can control. That there is order in the universe. And that if I can’t solve my own problems, maybe it is because they are meant for someone else to solve. The whole village concept.
That family moved a few streets away in the Spring (while insisting that it wasn’t because of us) so I never got a chance to know them. Their son would be an adult now, and I find myself wondering about how he is doing. If they got better neighbours than a couple of self-centred people focused on their careers. I hope they did.
I am grateful to them for teaching me about how to be a good neighbour. And about how neither of us could have known that she was teaching me a phrase to tell our future neighbours…
“Maggie has autism, and if you ever see her out front by herself, please let me know right away…”