What does it mean to be a good neighbour?

The death of her next-door neighbour has Winnipeg writer ​Janine LeGal wondering if we need to be better neighbours, especially to those who live alone.

'I don't think neighbourliness ever goes out of style,' writes Janine LeGal

​Janine LeGal says the death of her next-door neighbour has made her realize that she doesn't know most of the other people living on her street. (Shutterstock / solarseven)

There were two police cars parked on the street in front of our house when we arrived home. Then a dark-coloured, very large van came.

My partner knew what it was for. I refused to believe the worst.

I went out, talked to the police officer as he came out of the house next door.

"Is he all right?" I asked. "Please tell me he's OK."

The tears came before his answer did.

"He's gone. I'm sorry," the officer replied.

His genuine sadness worried me. I fell to the ground. It couldn't possibly be true.

Todd was our neighbour. He was 53 years old and had been living with cancer.

A few weeks earlier, he'd told me he was procrastinating on the death thing. He was funny that way.

I was at his door Monday night of his last week alive to bring him some soup. I'd promised him soup. I knocked and knocked. And knocked again. There'd been no answer. I thought he was likely sleeping. He kept odd hours because of the cancer treatments taking a toll.

His body was taken away by that dark-coloured van that comes when people die. He had two cats he loved very much. He's gone now. The family came around and emptied the house contents. They cleaned everything and made arrangements for his beloved cats. There's to be no funeral, as per his wishes.

Amplified awareness of others

We'd invited Todd to come by for a visit. We planned to see him at Christmas. He lived alone. A bit of a curmudgeon. We'd had some memorable conversations.

I still can't believe he's gone. Every time I walk by his house now, look out our windows into his, I can't believe he's not coming back.

We weren't that close or anything, but we chatted outside, especially in the summertime. He grew herbs and tomatoes and liked to tell me about his cats. I told him we'd be doing some painting in our house soon. Bright colours. We talked about quite a few things: politics, health care, death. We were neighbours.

Since Todd's passing, I can't stop thinking about what it means to be a good neighbour, and I can't help feeling like we need to be better neighbours. With our aging population and many of those living alone, I worry.

I wish we'd spent more time with Todd. Paid a little more attention to his loneliness. But maybe the gift he left us with is an amplified awareness of others, our neighbours. Who are they? How long have they been living in the neighbourhood? Do they have a big family? Cats and dogs or both? Are they healthy? Is their house always full or are they mostly on their own? Not in the nosy neighbour kind of way, but in the "we care about our community and the safety and well-being of everyone in it" kind of way.

We don't all need to be best friends visiting each other every other day. But wouldn't it be nice if we did have at least a sense of who was who on our street so we could say hello, smile, maybe even have a chat while watering the lawn or shovelling the snow now and then? Someone to nod to when taking the garbage and recycling bins out to the curb.

We're all in this together

I remember how surprised Todd seemed when I told him I'd bring him some homemade soup because I didn't want him to keep eating all that takeout stuff he'd been eating.

"That can't be good for you," I said in my almost motherly tone. He smiled tentatively.

Since Todd was taken away those few weeks ago, I realize that after almost two years on our street we don't actually know anyone else living among us, except those living on the other side of Todd's house. I met them only because I walked over there and thought, dammit, I'm gonna go over there and introduce myself and tell them that I want to know my neighbours. The response was favourable, fortunately. We bonded over the loss of our neighbour, after all.

It's hard to know what will work and what may be too much sometimes, but I don't think neighbourliness ever goes out of style or becomes politically incorrect. I really don't.

We're all in this together. And it would be really sad, needlessly so, if anyone near us was ever to die alone. Or worse, to live daily alone. Without visitors, family, friends. Without neighbours.

Maybe just keeping eyes open is a good place to start. And keeping the heart open, too. One never knows how meaningful that bowl of soup might be.

​Janine LeGal is a Winnipeg freelance writer.​


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