A couple nights ago, before getting ready to go to bed just before midnight, I checked my cell (left on silent), not really expecting any calls. To my surprise, I missed two calls from an unknown number, and there were 2 voice mails in my box. The first was a hang-up and the second yielded a quivering voice of an elderly lady speaking Chinese.

It was Mrs. Chan, the neighbour who lived to the right of my suite. Her husband passed away this summer from a sudden recurrence of leukemia. Mr. and Mrs. Chan were the first neighbours I met when I first moved in; we established a good rapport with each other. Mr. Chan always recognized me and remembered my name. Once he even spontaneously invited me over to a family dinner, which I declined because I had guests over.

I remember full well the day in early May when firefighters came in to take Mr. Chan away on a stretcher due to one of his relapses. He eventually came back. But his daughter Elise, who frequently looked in on him, was worried that he wouldn’t get timely blood transfusions to sustain his oxygen levels. I had run into her in late June, when she filled me in that her father was dying. After that, I didn’t see Elise again until September, who then informed me that her dad passed away in July. She also told me that her mom only lived part time in the apartment nowadays, so that’s why I haven’t seen her around much.

So I was really surprised (and a bit alarmed) when Mrs. Chan called. Twice. And the second call at 1121pm! Out of concern, I decided to ring her back, just in case something was wrong. Little old ladies don’t regularly call their neighbours so late at night.

It turns out she was wondering what the new notices on the bulletin board in the foyer were about. They were written in English, which she can’t read, and she worried that they were notices about water or electricity shut-offs; if that were the case, she wanted to be prepared. So I went downstairs to double-check on the notices (which were reminders to people not to leave their key fobs in the car), went back upstairs, and duly reassured her that she had nothing to worry about. In spite of my clumsy Cantonese, we managed to talk for a bit and even exchanged invitations to get together. I quite like Mrs. Chan. She is sweet, unimposing, and genteel (unlike many little old Chinese ladies I know). But I sense she is lonely and feeling a bit vulnerable these days.

I’ve never had to practice being a good neighbour before. I guess here’s my chance.