Deloache Avenue runs through the heart of Preston Hollow. It looks like any other street around here, but there’s one block that proves that our neighborhood can be a truly remarkable place sometimes.
It’s not the landscaping or the houses that set it apart – it’s the families living here.
Just ask Annette Leslie. After living on Deloache Avenue for 17 years, she can testify to that.
“Our block is like nowhere else in the world,” she says. “The neighbors here share a special bond, and everyone really goes above and beyond to let you know you’re loved.”
That bond became starkly apparent when the Leslie family’s world suddenly caved in last fall, when Leslie’s youngest son, Carson, 14, fell ill.
“He was throwing up a lot, and it was flu season, so we thought it was just a bug of some sort,” she says.
But when his vision began to blur and his legs began to give out, Leslie knew it was more than just seasonal sickness.
“They sent us to an infectious disease specialist and ran a ton of blood work, but they couldn’t find anything,” she says. “And when he finally started seeing double, that was it. I took him to the hospital, and I told them I wasn’t leaving until they could tell me what was happening to my son.”
The doctors eventually discovered a ping-pong ball sized tumor in Carson’s brain that had metastasized and spread to his spinal cord.
“I have never been so completely, utterly devastated in my life, and I’ve buried both my parents, so I’ve been through pain, but not like this,” Leslie says. “My heart literally aches, and I can still barely say the word ‘cancer’ without having to whisper it.”
Leslie says the diagnosis hit the rest of the family – her husband, Craig, and 17-year-old son, Craig Thomas – equally hard.
“It was like the bottom of our world fell out from beneath us,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of tears in our home. I think there are probably bowls filled with our tears in heaven right now.”
It was during this initial period that Leslie’s neighbors and friends – or “her angels,” as she calls them – stepped in to help the family start healing.
The neighbors on Deloache Avenue organized themselves, volunteering to bring the Leslie family dinner every other night and help with household chores. Longtime neighbor and family friend Tova Sido spearheaded the effort.
“When we found out that Carson was sick, our block was so devastated that we could all barely talk to each other,” she says. “We had no idea how bad it was, or what would happen, the unknown was very scary, but we knew facing it together, as a community would make it a little less scary.”
And Sido knows how much neighborly kindness can mean in a time of suffering. She lost two children to Mitochondrial disease, a rare genetic disorder, and she says through it all, her neighborhood stood by her.
“When our first son died, we left town for about a month. And when we came back, our neighbors had planted flowers in our yard. I just can’t tell you how much that meant to us.”
Sido says having been a mother with a seriously sick child, she’s also able to empathize with the Leslies.
“I know what it’s like to have a sick child and I know how lonely it can be, and I know how heart breaking it can be,” she says. “When you have a sick child, you feel incredibly isolated and you feel like everyone else around you is happy and normal, and you can’t help but wonder why this has happened to your child. But just to know that the people living next to you would do anything to take that pain from you if they could is a big comfort. And honestly, when you’re suffering, a distraction is nice. When we would bring food, we’d also bring company to them so they weren’t becoming isolated in their pain, but rather staying connected to us as a community.”
And Leslie says so far, the neighborly kindness really has helped to ease the pain.
“My neighbors have been like family to me. I never realized how blessed I was to live on this street or the true depth of the friends I’ve made here until my family went through this catastrophe,” she says. “If they weren’t stopping by with a hot dinner for us, they were stopping by to visit Carson, or they were stopping by with groceries, or they were stopping by to come clean my house or work in my yard,” she says.
After having his brain tumor removed, Carson started radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which he will continue until January of 2008. Doctors expect him to make a full recovery, and the Leslie family continues “to keep faith that Carson will one day be in good health again.”
Still, Leslie admits she has “good days and bad days” and takes great comfort in the steady outpour of her neighbors’ generosity and kindness.
“My family has fallen, but our community has been there to lift us up and hold us up, because right now, we can’t stand on our own,” she says.
And the kindness didn’t end on her block. The families of The Covenant School also stepped in to help. Both of Leslie’s sons have been at the school since kindergarten, and she taught first grade there before Carson fell ill.
“They’ve been a huge support to our family during this dark time,” she says. “In fact, when we came home from the hospital after Carson had his tumor removed, they had made a big banner welcoming him home and telling him how much they loved him, and they had planted a bunch of flowers in our yard. And when Carson first started losing his hair from the chemotherapy, the entire football team shaved their heads in support of him. Then they dedicated all that hair to Locks of Love so it’d be helping other kids with cancer.”
As much as that meant to his family, it also lifted the spirits of Carson.
“Knowing my classmates and my neighbors care so much makes me feel pretty good, and it keeps me positive,” he says. “I never imagined that I’d be sick like this, and I definitely never imagined that people would care this much if I did get sick, but it’s really nice that they do.”
In fact, Carson had so many visitors after his brain surgery that he had to be transferred to a bigger hospital room. But there was one visitor in the room that always helped cheer him up: a life-size cutout of Derek Jeter.
“Anyone who knows Carson knows that calling him a fan of Derek Jeter is an understatement,” Leslie says. “My son idolizes him – that’s his hero.”
One look at Carson’s room proves this. There’s the Derek Jeter cologne, the posters, the jerseys, the biographies and, of course, the life-size cutout. So when a family friend heard about Carson’s illness, they pulled a few strings and arranged a meeting with Jeter in Tampa, Fla., this past spring.
“It was a mix of emotions – happy, nervous, excited – all at once. It was definitely a highlight of my life, and I just couldn’t believe I was standing next to someone I’ve always dreamt of meeting,” Carson says. “The entire time I was with him, I never even thought about being sick. I just forgot about everything else going on in my life.”
Jeter gave Carson a priceless memory and the ultimate fan memorabilia: his wristbands and an autographed baseball bat.
“I’ll never forget how happy my son looked when he walked out of that locker room holding Derek Jeter’s baseball bat,” Leslie says. “It was a bitter-sweet moment. I felt happy to see that bright, true joy in his eyes, but I felt sad to know it had to come at such a high price.”
In fact, Leslie says the entire past year has really been a bittersweet experience.
“Of course I’m devastated that my son has gotten so sick, but at the same time I’m thankful that my family has been blessed with such loving neighbors and friends,” she says.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I’ve learned that it also takes a village to help a family cope with tragedy. No parent ever wants to have a seriously ill child, but if they do have to face that, I know they’d certainly hope they have a community like this one to support them through it.”
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