Our house is on a funny corner in DC. The way that it’s situated, we have a lot more interactions with the people behind us than we do with the people in front of us. I have almost daily exchanges with the neighbors behind us – we have kids with similar ages, and throughout the years (and especially this pandemic) our children have played together in the alley. That alley behind our house is where Tommy learned to ride his bike as the neighbors cheered him on; it’s the place Austin went every day after school to play and eat dinner with his friend Grant’s family; it’s the alley where Claire and I talked many afternoons in the first months after Chris came into our lives, working through what it meant to welcome someone new into our family. We love our back alley.
We park in front of our house, so we do sometimes see the neighbors across the street, but we don’t have the casual, hang-around-and-chat-for-hours times with them that we have with the people who share our back alley. The neighbors across the street seem nice, but I know little about them besides their first names. We are polite and they are polite and we all just keep moving. I’ve only been inside their house once, when I locked myself out of my own house.
But they have seen my entire life happen. Or at least most of the really important parts over the last decade.
In fact, it’s been almost exactly ten years since I first moved into our house. The day we moved in, Shawn spoke to the neighbors across the street, and that night, they left a bottle of wine on our porch with a note congratulating us on the new house. We were exhausted from moving, but we sat in the backyard anyway, staring up at the stars and drinking the bottle of wine and feeling grateful for our lives. A new house!
About a month later, a terrible storm hit DC. An hour into the storm, our basement started to flood. Shawn took action and went outside and began digging a trench around the side of the house where water was seeping in. About 30 minutes into this endeavor, one of our neighbors came outside. He was worried about Shawn, and offered to help, but Shawn told him it was okay. The neighbors were older than us, and he didn’t want anyone getting hurt. He came back to check on him an hour later, and Shawn waved him off again. They peeked their heads out the next day, once the rain subsided, and congratulated him on saving the basement.
A year and a half passed, and we saw them infrequently, always politely waving and smiling when we did. But we learned next-to-nothing about them, and they knew little about us.
And then Tommy was born in the living room. (Oh yes he was! If you’ve missed that post from a few years ago, definitely check it out here.) That night, as the paramedics carried me out to the ambulance and Shawn followed with Tommy in his arms, we saw the neighbors peering out their window, watching everything happen. We found out later that they came over to check on Claire and Austin after we left. When we returned from the hospital with baby Tommy, we found a congratulatory note from them on our porch.
Three years after that, Shawn got sick. They must’ve watched us come up and down the steps, quickly at first and then very slowly. They must’ve watched the arrival of my father and my Aunt Nancy. They must’ve seen all the people come and go with food. And though I’m not sure, I feel like they watched Shawn leave the house on the night before he died, aided down the steps by my father since he could barely walk and his swollen feet couldn’t fit in his shoes. Did they know he was dying?
I found out later, when we saw each other a few weeks after Shawn’s death, that initially the neighbors had heard only that he was sick. “We didn’t know he died until just a few days ago,” they said, clearly apologetic. I didn’t fault them. It’s not like we put a sign up announcing it. They offered to bring food but I waved them off. We already had enough food.
Time passed. My dad stayed, and slowly, he chatted with the neighbors more than I ever had. Still, he didn’t know much about them – they were clearly very private people. But they waved every morning as my dad took the kids to school. Sometimes, they’d admire Tommy’s new superhero backpack or something else that the kids showed off.
When the pandemic hit, they saw my father leave, and they offered to help if I needed anything. But what could we really do besides yell to each other from our respective yards? Still, it was nice to know they were there.
Weeks later, on the day before Easter, Chris surprised me at home. I hadn’t seen him in over a month, and I wasn’t expecting him to show up. He sent me a text as I was making dinner. “I sent you a little Easter surprise. I think Becky left it on your car, down in front of your garage. Grab it and give me a call!”
I went outside, and one of the neighbors was in her yard. I saw her and said hello and then we chatted for a moment. And then I turned around and saw Chris in my driveway.
Obviously, I immediately forgot about the neighbor. But she must’ve watched me run to him and then she must have watched him pick me up and kiss me in the driveway. She must’ve watched it all happen.
A few months later, Claire graduated from 5th grade, and the celebration included a parade. We decorated the car and the neighbors came out to admire it. That night, a little present appeared on our doorstep. “Congratulations, Claire!” it said. It was from them.
Later, when Chris moved in, we waved at the neighbors as we unpacked the U-Haul. Maybe they even watched Becky hide in the bushes as she took photos of our engagement last December. I don’t know.
What I do know is that these neighbors – the ones who I know little about beside their first names – they’ve watched major pieces of my life take shape over the last decade. Of course, a lot of other people have also watched my life happen, and been active participants supporting me along the way. But these neighbors have really just seen snippets of the things that changed my life – birth, death, graduation, falling in love. They don’t know all the in-between stories in the way that our close friends and family do. I don’t even think they know I write this blog.
What must it be like to see just these critical moments? Maybe they wonder about my life, having gathered pieces of data throughout the years. Or maybe they don’t think about me much at all, other than when we see each other in passing.
It’s funny that we are mostly strangers after all these years. And yet, these neighbors have been there for more events in my life than almost anyone. They’ve seen the momentous ones, and also the everyday ones. Maybe they even watched me cry in my car in front of the house when Shawn was sick, or in the days after he died.
Just this morning, I saw them leave for a walk together, waving cheerfully as Chris and I unloaded the groceries from the car. What must they be thinking?
I’ll likely never know. And I guess that’s okay – we don’t need to know everything about everyone. Sometimes it’s nice just to see a friendly face across the street.