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Heart of the Neighborhood

by Sheree Kirby

I watch my neighbor, Wade, from my upstairs bedroom window. He's standing across the street in a T-shirt, baggy shorts and flip-flops, squirting water on his front lawn. The grass is a soft green blanket, the best-tended in the neighborhood. Wade's yard means a lot to him. But the neighborhood - the squeals of the children, the hubbub of mothers connecting with one another at the end of the day, and the guys savoring beers over a new car -- that means much, much more.

I think that I should walk across the street to talk with him now. But what new thing can I say?

Wade says I'm his inspiration, and it brings tears to my eyes. He does not know how I fainted upon hearing my diagnosis or how much I cried throughout my treatment. He did not see me lying awake for nights on end, wallowing in the unfairness of it all, so sure that my own end was near. That was seven years ago. Now it is he who is fighting the battle, and with a far more intimidating prognosis. Yet he does it with a grace and openness that continues to astound me. "How are you doing, Wade?" an acquaintance asks him. "We'll I'm fighting for my life, George, but I've got a lot of help around here."

Wade is over six-feet tall. He's a little hunched at the shoulders and he's moving a bit slower these days. But at sixty-four, he's still a good-looking man. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe that more than thirteen years have passed since the morning my husband and I pulled up to the "For Sale" sign in front of our new, older tract home. Before the engine cooled, Wade was there extending a hand. He was so pleased to meet us, he said. It's a great neighborhood, he reassured us. He and his wife had lived there for more than twenty years. Raised two children. If there was anything he could help with, anything we needed, he offered...

A nice gesture, I thought at the time, but I had no plans to bother him. Yet, soon after we moved in, my car battery died and Wade appeared with a charger and cables. Then, not too long after that, I scraped the side of my new minivan on a fence and needed the scratches rubbed out. Wade had it done before my husband arrived home from work.

Wade loves cars. His coffee table is adorned with a fan of all the latest issues. For many years, he has run a successful home-based auto detail business. But he was never too busy to unplug the buffer and lend a hand or a tool. I've lost count of the number of Christmas trees he's helped us lug into our living room; and the tools -- bolt cutters, power cords, hedge trimmers and dollies - my husband and I have borrowed them all. Wade's extension ladder, too. That came in handy both times I locked myself out of my house and needed to get in through an open second story window. Of course Wade insisted on doing the climbing.

As I watch him today, I hear my dogs barking at a passerby and recall at least a dozen times that he managed to corral and return them when they escaped from the backyard. Now I see him waving at two young neighbors, a brother and a sister, as they pull their scooters to the curb to cross the street. Wade glances both ways, and I know that he is making sure their path is free of oncoming cars.

From the time my own children entered pre-school, Wade was the first name on their emergency list. And when I was in the midst of chemotherapy, he picked them up from class and took them to McDonald's to keep their spirits up.

Now, I do not know how to help keep his spirits up. Glancing at him, one wouldn't think he needed it. But he knows, as I do, that his small bowel is laden with cancer and that his chemo may not be working. Yet, there he is watering, his purple T-shirt proudly displaying the silk-screened "Survivor" logo on his back.

At one time, my husband and I considered moving - our house seemed to shrink as our three children grew -- but we decided that our neighbors were too valuable and that Wade's constant presence, in particular, was worth more than a few extra square feet. We stayed put.

We are not the only ones; dozens of neighbors feel the same way. Now we all help Wade in whatever ways we can. We mow his lawns, cook meals, stop and chat about the weather or his upcoming PET scan. And we all hope and pray, each in his or her own way, for a miracle.

Wade tells me that as he fights this disease, he will squeeze the most out of every day for as long as he can. I am ashamed because I can't say with certainty that I would have the courage to do the same. In my mind, I am cowering in my house, circling the wagons, waiting for the enemy's final blow.

I watch him roll up his hose, and rub his hands on the sides of his khaki shorts. As I make my way downstairs to go across the street for a visit, I tell myself that he will win his battle. That the heart of our neighborhood will forever be.

In addition to raising her family, attending graduate school, and editing the Survivor's Review, Sheree enjoys spending time with her friends and neighbors.