Good Fences, Good Neighbors
What’s the appropriate way to thank a neighbor you just met who spends two long days helping you build a fence and who won’t accept any payment? That was my quandary.
Bob and Mary Lane have a beautiful picket fence around their modest and well-manicured yard here in Harmony. My wife saw it and decided it was the perfect fence to keep the grandchildren in our yard, and the deer, wild turkeys, and sand hill cranes out.
I stopped by Bob’s house one evening to introduce myself and ask about his fence. He said he built it himself and said if I decided to build one, he would be happy to help, as long as I didn’t ask him to dig the post holes. He seemed truly genuine and I knew I didn’t have the handyman skills to build a fence myself, so I told him I’d take him up on his offer.
I ordered the materials and called Bob when they arrived. On the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, he and my son Paul and I built the fence for several hours. At his insistence, he returned the following Monday and worked nearly the whole day with us. His experience and keen eye for detail were invaluable. I absolutely could not have done it without him.
And if I say so myself, the fence looks great—mostly thanks to Bob. And what counted for more than building a fence was building a new friendship. As you might imagine, we told a lot of stories out on the fence line. There’s something about sharing hard work and stories that turns strangers into friends. But Bob’s generosity was troubling.
How could I thank and repay someone I only recently met who cheerfully gave not just one but two whole days to help a neighbor in need? Having them over for dinner was a given, but that wasn’t enough. Offering money would be insulting, but I had to do something. Fortunately the answer came to me Monday as we worked.
In the course of our conversations, Bob told me that they have seven children, including three married daughters who live within a block of their house. One of those daughters, their middle child Amanda, 33 years old and the mother of a five-year-old daughter, was dying of breast cancer. She had fought it a couple of years earlier, successfully they thought, but it had returned with a vengeance. This time it was taking over her whole body. Fence building, Bob said, was good therapy to get his mind off her plight.
I responded by telling Bob about my 32-year-old mother and her fight against throat cancer. I told Bob about my mother’s letter, and how it inspired me to develop tools like “Priceless Conversations” to help people like Amanda share love messages with their children, their spouse, and others. I told Bob about my book, Like a Library Burning. I told Bob I wanted to repay him in part by helping his daughter share and save her legacy. From the tears in his eyes, I could tell Bob was touched and grateful for my offer.
Bob left that afternoon with a copy of my book for himself and a copy for Amanda. The next day I took them three Priceless Conversation tool kits—“My Child” for her daughter Addison, age 5; “Love” for her husband Shawn; and “Legacy” for the rest of her family. Amanda thanked me and said she would read the questions and call me when she felt well enough to talk. She also asked some legal and financial questions that I was able to answer for her.
Sadly, she never called. Bob phoned last week when I was in Scottsdale and said Amanda and Shawn wanted to see me Tuesday to address some of their legal and financial issues. He said Amanda had been in constant pain and on medication, and didn’t feel she could complete a Priceless Conversation.
I met with them Tuesday afternoon and discovered a couple of really critical insurance issues that needed immediate attention. Amanda told me she really wanted to do the Priceless Conversations, especially the one for her daughter, and as soon as she felt a little better, she would do it. She was afraid her little girl might not remember her very well if she didn’t. On
Wednesday, Bob and I took care of those pressing insurance issues, but Amanda still didn’t feel that she could talk.
At three o’clock Thursday morning, Amanda passed away at home in her sleep.
Amanda’s death hit me hard. It hurts that we failed to capture her words and her voice and her stories. I feel like a frustrated fireman—I rescued the money, but the library burned down while I looked on. This wasn’t supposed to happen on my watch.
The family is planning a memorial service on the 28th of February, which would have been Amanda’s 34th birthday. Before then I’ll give Bob and Mary the “Tribute” Priceless Conversation and offer to facilitate it for them when their family is together again. That will afford them an occasion to remember Amanda and tell their favorite stories about her and save those stories for her daughter. It’s the least we can do for little Addison; I hope it will be enough.