In March of 2002, my husband Rex and I moved to a small fixer upper in Palos Verdes. Our next door neighbor is a single guy named Mark. He is barely 30, and like Rex, enjoys schmoozing in the driveway about home improvement. Rex invites Mark to one of his plays at the university, and that’s where we meet his fiancee Karen. They get married, Karen moves in next door, and before long they’re raising a family. No matter how busy they get, they remain our “go to” neighbors when we go on vacation or need a favor.
As their children begin to grow, my husband’s health begins to decline. At first it’s almost imperceptible, but as the years progress he becomes increasingly tired with bouts of confusion. On an ordinary day in January, 2014, I drive to the Westside to babysit my son and daughter-in-law’s 4 kids. As soon as they leave for their “date,” I get an urgent call on my cell phone. “Rex is in his car in the driveway,” my neighbor Karen says. “The car alarm is going off and he’s just sitting there, staring into space.”
I’m with 4 kids under 10, even if I could leave them, it would take me an hour and a half to get home in traffic. I tell her I’ll call her back and start making some calls. Meanwhile, Karen brings Rex into my house and manages to turn off the car alarm. Her kids come over too, because Mark isn’t home and they’re too young to be alone. Fortunately, I reach my step-daughter who agrees to drive from Burbank and stay with her dad until I can get home.
By the time I get there Rex is running a high fever. I call 911 and he’s taken by ambulance to Torrance Memorial Hospital. Everything happens fast, and before I know it he’s having his gallbladder removed. The doctor-on-call tells me not to worry; everything else checks out fine and he’ll be ready to go home in a few days. Even though he’s given a clean bill of health, as I reflect on it now, that was the beginning of the end.
On July 28th, 2016, Rex took another emergency trip to Torrance Memorial. This time I have my own doctor involved, and she personally runs all the tests that should have been run in 2014. By noon the next day we have a diagnosis: Stage 4 Cancer. We do surgery, we do radiation, we do everything possible. But on September 17th, 2016, my sweet husband dies in a hospital bed at home and none of us knows what hit us.
With all the funeral arrangements and commotion in our family, I forget to tell Karen and Mark. About 3 weeks go by when Karen knocks on my door to ask about Rex. “Oh Karen, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. He passed away 3 weeks ago.” She stands on my doorstep as tears start flooding her eyes. “We loved him,” she sobs. “Mark is going to be devastated.”
The next few months go by in a blur. I do all the household chores and try to keep it together. I continue going to my daughter’s house in Costa Mesa on Mondays to watch her kids. On those days I don’t get home until after 7 pm. Monday is garbage day, so I try to get the cans out on Sunday nights.
One Monday night when I get home, I notice that my empty cans have already been taken in. The neighbors on my other side were also very helpful when Rex was sick, so maybe it was them. Oh wait, I’m close to the rabbi who lives around the corner, so it could have been him. I have no idea who my “Secret Angel” is, and I want to find out so I can thank them.
The next Monday night as I’m driving home, I see Mark and his 10 year old son Bobby in front of my house. They’re wheeling my garbage cans to the side yard. I roll down my car window and call out, “Are you the one who’s been doing this for the past few weeks? He looks like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “We try to,” he answers sheepishly; “it’s no big deal.”
The next day I see him alone in his driveway and go over. “Thank you so much, Mark,” I say. “You don’t have to do this every week, really.” He smiles at me with a look of embarrassment and says, “I want Bobby to learn about neighbors and chores. And besides,” he pauses with a catch in his throat, “I loved Rex. I want to do this for him.”
That was a year ago and they still take out my garbage on Sunday nights and return the cans on Monday, without saying a word. A few months ago, when the fog in my brain started to lift, I bought Bobby a junior size football that he freely retrieves from my backyard whenever it goes over the fence. For Thanksgiving I made them all a huge gift basket with gummy bears and other kid friendly treats. They’re always appreciative, but they don’t need gifts or recognition. Their act of kindness seems to be helping them and much as it does me.
A few weeks ago I knocked on their door, because an unfamiliar car was blocking my driveway. When Karen answers, one of her friends hears me and appologizes profusely. “I was just dropping off my kids, I’ll be gone in a second.” I start chatting with Bobby and his 9 years old sister Julie. We’re laughing about our dogs digging under the fence so they can play together. Julie is very talkative and I’m enjoying the friendly banter with my next door neighbors’ kids.
I get home from work feeling tired and cranky. As I approach my front door I see a pink gift bag with ribbons overflowing. Inside there is a handmade card and on the front it says: “A little Gift for…” I open it and it says, “YOU! Look in this bag! I made this for you!! “Love, Julie!” I rummage through the bag and I find it: a 2 inch wide heart, made from over 30 pink beads. It’s adorable! This 9 year old child’s gesture has touched me beyond words.
It’s easy to resort to self-pity when you lose someone you love. Believe me, I’ve done more than my share. Yet who would have thought that the single guy next door would morph into this beautiful, loving family? Their unexpected acts of kindness have been instrumental in helping to lift my spirits.
They make me think of all the other caring people who’ve been there for me since I lost my husband. I am so grateful. Acts of kindness remind us of our shared humanity. For the past year and a half I’ve been the recipient, and now it is time to pay it forward. The greatest acts of kindness are helping others without expecting anything in return. In Hebrew we call it a Mitzvah. And what better way to honor the memory of my dear husband Rex.
Sydell Weiner, Ph.D