I thought I knew how much I appreciated our next-door neighbor, who we affectionately called “Auntie Helen,” but fulfilled the role of a surrogate grandparent to my 5-year-old son.
I told people how grateful I was to have Auntie Helen and Uncle Shawn next door and how my son would hang out with them for hours whenever he showed up to their house unannounced.
Sometimes, my son would ask me what there was to eat. Seeing that he didn’t like the answer, I could watch his little brain figuring out how he could get something more enticing. He would then declare “Mommy, I am going to Auntie Helen’s,” and off he marched across the lawn in search of a better meal. which he was sure to find. Those moments made my heart soar.
Auntie Helen and Uncle Shawn were additional adults in his life that he could look to for safety, fun, food, and other life experiences apart from his parents. They lived close enough for him to exert his independence and trek across the lawn that his 40 inches of height likely saw as a vast, adventurous field. I was genuinely grateful every time he came home from being at their house with a smile on his face, and often, some sort of treat in hand.
It wasn’t until the moment I found out that Auntie Helen was being removed from life support from a brain aneurysm that I realized how much of a part of my life she had become.
Saying that my grief has taken me by surprise makes it sound like I didn’t realize how special she was. I knew she was special. I knew my son’s relationship with her was special. I knew that I regularly felt gratitude for her. What I didn’t know was that over the years she had become an anchor on the corner of our street. More aptly, an anchor in the day-to-day routines that I had come to know as my life. I didn’t realize the amount of comfort it brought me knowing that, more likely than not, Auntie Helen was next door at any given moment. Whether we needed ketchup, or my son wanted to play with his special drawer of toys, or drink hot chocolate at Auntie Helen’s, she was always there.
She was the type of neighbor that just a month earlier had asked me if there was anything she could do to be a better neighbor. She had a pulse on the neighborhood that allowed her to be there for people in small, but meaningful ways.
Auntie Helen had health issues that resulted in her regularly using a walker. Rain or shine, if she was physically able, she would walk. Although I thought of it often, I never got a chance to tell her how inspiring she was. Sometimes I’d be working at my desk, lamenting the fact that I still hadn’t braved the rain to get my mail from the mailbox. Inevitably, I would then see Auntie Helen walk by, suited in rain gear, with her walker.
A smile would creep across my face at my ridiculousness, along with a feeling of awe towards her dedication to move. Her growing restrictions were challenging for her to embrace. However, once she was done feeling those feelings, off she went to do whatever she could.
Our reality has been turned upside down as COVID-19 restrictions have shut down our normal, everyday life.
To have to tell my son, “Yes, Uncle Shawn still lives next-door even though Auntie Helen is no longer there, but you can’t go over to his house,” is extremely painful.
Losing Auntie Helen so suddenly has made me painfully aware of how much she had become a part of my life and it reminds me of a quote by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
The everyday moments that we experience in our neighborhood and throughout town all become our life, our story. Through small, but intentional actions, Auntie Helen became a part of my days and, therefore, my story.
• Kanani Rhea is a longtime Juneau resident and neighbor of Helen Eggers. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.