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Connections

The couple next door

Even from a distance, watching my neighbor tend to his ailing wife taught me an important lesson about marriage.

Gracia Lam

Sometimes those who live near seem far off. They blend into the background and become just another lamppost. One day you realize something is amiss. You come upon a steep hole and remember what had been there and taken for granted.

Nine years ago I met Bob and his wife, Rita. We had moved into a leafy cul-de-sac, across the street from their blue Colonial. One afternoon I came out with my 3-year-old daughter while Bob was cleaning the gutters, with Rita holding the ladder. The air smelled of burning wood. They had built their house and raised six children here, Rita said; if I needed baby-sitting, she was there. That happened to be my only conversation with her. Occasionally we would see one another, they in their cautious beige sedan, I with my daughter; we’d wave.

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Every morning Bob raised the flag. He mowed the lawn and plowed the driveway. When he raised the flag, Rita stood by. When he mowed, she gardened. On Thanksgiving six cars came — their six children and 12 grandchildren.

When my daughter started kindergarten Bob stopped gardening. At noon Rita would stand by the front porch while he backed the car out of the garage; she’d walk around to join him. Two years later Bob would back out and park in the driveway. He would exit the car, enter the garage, reemerge with Rita, his hand on her elbow, and hold the door while she took her seat. One night, the ambulance came, lights on, sirens off. I heard Rita had Alzheimer’s.

Bob stopped plowing; when it snowed, their son came after work to clear the driveway. Once in the CVS parking lot I heard someone talking animatedly, as if coaxing a child. Two cars over, Bob was helping Rita out of the car, his hand on her elbow.

Three winters ago, when my daughter was in fourth grade, snowstorms struck almost every week. One day my small snow blower finally quit. I sighed at the white fortress, my height and solid, blocking our driveway. Bob emerged, pushing his wheezing and hacking snow blower, and insisted on clearing the remaining snow. He had to stop from time to time to check on Rita — he had seated her in front of the television.

The ambulance came again. And again.

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Shortly after, Bob would leave at 10 without stopping in his driveway. Rita had moved to a nursing home. He would feed her lunch and then run errands while she napped. He returned to feed her dinner and sit with her until he tucked her in. I saw him at the grocery store and mentioned the upcoming Thanksgiving.

“No one will come,” he said, staring at the two bags of Lay’s potato chips in his basket. “I will be with my wife. At her nursing home.”

In February Bob called, the first time in nine years. He was selling their house and did not want me to be alarmed when strange cars lingered. I rang his bell, another first. He left me standing inside the door. He had cleaned the attic, he said, and was working in the basement. Then he spoke of his wife. She no longer knew their six children but still recognized him sometimes. It must be exhausting, I said, taking care of her. He shook his head. He enjoyed being with her, feeding her, or just looking at her, he murmured. It was not work.

As summer came, a tiny tricycle replaced the beige sedan in the driveway. I often thought of my neighbor of nine years, whom I had barely spoken with, yet who had shown me what it meant to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse.

Shuo Zhuang is a writer who lives in the Boston suburbs. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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