Illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel
Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, the cinder-block walls separating my family’s yard and the next-door neighbors’ were not to be breached. My brother discovered this when he climbed over to retrieve a ball and was bloodied by a pair of Irish setters defending their turf. Otherwise, we had little interaction with the people whose daily lives and personal dramas were playing out a few feet away from ours.
It was the same in the half-dozen other places I’ve lived since then, urban and suburban, apartment tower and townhouse—even the “planned community” my family moved to when I was in high school. Community isn’t something that can be planned.
So it’s a little ironic that, when my husband, Matt, and I moved to Upper Jay 15 years ago, my mother wondered if I would feel isolated in a hamlet whose population was smaller than my 10th-grade class. It’s a place where the distance to our nearest neighbors is measured in acres, not feet, and it would take a hell of an arm to lob a ball into their backyards. No need for fences here.
Then, two years ago, we adopted Miles, a redbone coonhound mix with no sense of boundaries. Invade his territory and he might snuggle you to within an inch of your life. Unlike our older dog, Ollie, who can be trusted to stay on our property, Miles will chase after anything that moves, be it squirrel, bicyclist or UPS driver.
Our attempts to train Miles, and then contain him with an “invisible fence,” went nowhere. He would endure the shock of crossing through the perimeter and then stand in the road, whining, and run away if someone tried to approach. When one such incident caused a traffic jam on our rural road, we wondered if it was time to build a real, visible fence to pen him in.
The final straw came when Matt was working in the front garden and discovered that Miles was lying in the middle of the road, soaking up the warmth of the asphalt.
A decent-looking fence is expensive. Fortunately, Matt is a carpenter, which saves on labor costs. He and Samantha, his partner in his construction business, started setting the posts late last summer and picked away at the project when they had time.
Then, one morning in late September, Matt complained that he was dizzy and couldn’t stand. He had gone to bed early the night before, feeling tired and a little “off,” and now it was worse. When he told me his lips and right side felt tingly, my alarm bells went off and I called 911.
Not long after, members of our local rescue squad appeared, among them neighbors and familiar faces. As my friend Mike, a fellow resident of the town of Jay, once remarked, “One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re gonna make it here you’re probably gonna have to call on a Lincoln at some point.” Sure enough, two of the volunteers who arrived at our door were members of the Lincoln clan, while a third—my coworker, Lisa—informed my friend and fellow editor Annie, who offered to drive our 10-year-old to school while we figured out what was wrong with Matt.
This was just the beginning of the countless acts of kindness we received over the next few months from close friends, acquaintances and neighbors we had never even met.
A CT scan at the hospital in Plattsburgh revealed that Matt, a seemingly healthy 44-year-old, was having a life-threatening stroke and needed to be flown to Burlington for emergency surgery. By this time he had lost coordination in his right side, was slurring like a drunkard, and his right eye was wandering around independently of the left. Before wheeling his gurney to the helicopter, one of the EMTs asked me if I wanted to kiss Matt goodbye. There was no room for me on board.
As I drove to the Cumberland Head ferry, I pushed away thoughts of what might happen, focusing only on what I needed to do at that moment.
Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors were mobilizing to take care of everything else. Samantha picked my son up from school and kept him overnight, the first of several weeks of extended sleepovers with friends. Other people looked after Miles and Ollie. My across-the-road neighbor and close friend, Kim, was working in Vermont and came to sit with me while I waited for Matt to get out of surgery. She booked us rooms at a nearby motel, where I mostly lay awake, waiting for visiting hours to start.
The surgery had gone well, but when I went to visit Matt in the neurological ICU, he was seeing double and still didn’t have full control of his right side. There was no telling whether or how long these effects would last, if he would be able to work, snowboard, or even walk again. On the hour, a nurse would repeat a series of tests, asking him how many fingers she was holding up, to touch his finger to his nose, and to repeat a series of words that began to echo in my head: “Mama. Huckleberry. Fifty-fifty.”
I stayed by Matt’s bedside during more than a week in the hospital and another in an acute rehab facility, fielding texts and calls from family and friends who wanted updates and to send their encouragement and love.
Everyone wanted to help. Group chats formed to organize care of the dogs and our son. Friends mowed our lawn, brought me clean clothes and books and snacks at the hospital, and cleaned my house—no simple feat—before my parents flew in to stay with our son. Others set up a fundraiser to help pay for Matt’s medical bills and lost wages, and people we didn’t even know contributed. Some offered hotel points to cover the costs of what I began to think of as the world’s worst Vermont vacation.
I had seen this kind of generosity many times since I had moved to the Adirondacks, where the social calendar is full of michigan dinners, poker runs and other fundraisers for neighbors who were sick or lost their house in a fire or had suffered some other misfortune.
Not that a sense of community is exclusive to small towns. I’m sure it exists in all sorts of settings, but the nature of rural communities, where official help may be miles away, demands it. Every hamlet and village in the Adirondacks has its version of the Lincolns, who volunteer for the fire department and playground cleanups and any number of jobs that would be paid positions in a city.
But I had never experienced it myself anywhere else, and I’d certainly never been on the receiving end of it. It felt like I had stage dived and was being carried aloft by the crowd.
Then there was the fence. Knowing that Matt was unlikely to be able to finish the job anytime soon, Samantha organized work parties to get it done in record time. Ward Lumber, where Matt was a regular customer, donated materials. Everyone we knew, and some we didn’t, pitched in, swinging hammers and sawing boards. My parents bought them pizzas and marveled at the show of support. It was finished before Matt came home from rehab, already well on his way to recovery.
Over the next six months, as Matt slowly rebuilt his strength and coordination, it gave us peace of mind to be able to put the dogs outside and know they were safe.
This summer, as the anniversary of Matt’s stroke approaches, we often sit in our yard, surrounded by this paradoxical reminder of the power of human connection.
While it may be the case that “good fences make good neighbors,” we have discovered that the reverse can also be true.
Lisa Bramen is the director of communications at Adirondack Foundation. She was an editor at Adirondack Life for 15 years.