Since we moved into our house 14 years ago, our next door neighbors have been the Hellers. They were an older, semi-retired couple; we were a younger, just-starting-out couple. Nonetheless, they were there to greet us with hanging plants and gardening advice when we first moved in, to admire our kids as they arrived, one and one and two at a time, and then to introduce their grandchildren as playmates to our brood.
As our eldest son’s autism became more pronounced, the Hellers were models of tolerance and love.
Avi loves to script Sesame Street videos, and the Hellers had a hammock strung between two trees in their yard. In one clip, Ernie searches for Big Bird under a hammock, so Avi would bolt next door to re-enact that scene whenever he had the chance. “Don’t worry! He’s not bothering anybody!” Mr. Heller would reassure me as I’d apologize for the intrusion.
Mr. Heller prided himself on his impeccably manicured lawn and landscaping. Avi would sometimes run over and pick some flowers, then tear them up and sprinkle them around, pretending he was a tornado from Elmo’s World. “Don’t worry! He’s not bothering anybody!” Mr. Heller would say, with a broad smile.
The Hellers had a set of wind chimes hanging near their back door. One weekend, they were hosting some friends for a barbecue on their deck. Avi ran over, breezed past the visitors, and began ringing the chimes for all he was worth. “Don’t worry! He’s not bothering anybody!” Mr. Heller announced as I stammered apologies to the startled group. Then he threw in, “He’s welcome anytime!” for good measure.
It was a sad day when the Hellers announced they were putting their house on the market. How could we know whether the new owners would be Avi-friendly? And if they weren’t, how could we explain to a boy who’s all about routine and repetition that he can’t run next door anymore?
The Singers, our new neighbors, arrived about six months ago. They seemed nice enough – a young couple, just like we were back in 1999, but with two little children. To welcome them to the community, we invited them over for Shabbat dinner. We were a little nervous introducing them to Avi, but since he has a difficult time around strangers, Avi spent most of the time in his room. Still, they seemed tolerant and supportive, so we were cautiously optimistic. I told them about Avi’s penchant for the Hellers’ hammock. “We’re going to put up a hammock, too!” Mr. Singer said. “Avi can play with it anytime.”
Generally speaking, we tend to not ‘go places’ when Avi’s around, because his behaviors and the way he reacts to unfamiliar surroundings can be unpredictable. When he’s in camp during the summer, though, we try to get as much socializing in as possible. The Singers invited us for a Shabbat lunch a few weeks ago, and we had a lovely time. As we were wrapping up, Mrs. Singer said, “You know, we hope you’ll bring Avi next time, when he’s home from camp.”
We explained that he doesn’t ‘do well’ in other homes, but Mrs. Singer was unfazed. “He’s already familiar with our deck, isn’t he? So we’ll eat outside, and that way he’ll be comfortable and just a short distance from home.”
It was just an offhand suggestion. But the thought behind it – someone’s brainstorming to figure out ways to accommodate our family and make Avi comfortable – touched us very deeply. We’ll always miss the Hellers, and we’re very grateful for their warmth and support. At the same time, we feel blessed to have new neighbors who exemplify the same values and we wish them much happiness in our community.
Michael / Yaakov Steinhart is an editor and writer who lives in Suffern, NY. His eldest son, Avi, has an autism spectrum disorder. He's very proud of his wife, Michelle, and her efforts to increase awareness and reduce stigmas associated with children who have special needs.