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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 22, 2020
A Sydney River man says he never forgot the love and support he received from a neighbour during a devastating time for his family nine years ago.
Albert MacKay said while his wife Elaine spent more than a year away with their son Brian as the five-year-old underwent cancer treatment in 2011, neighbour Noline Francis brought dinner over to him every night.
“I felt it was now payback time,” said Albert, who built a large bulldozer playset for his neighbours, complete with a tire swing and solar lights for the night.
“I just put the last nail in it Wednesday night,” he said. “I had added a swing set to it.”
On May 22, 2011, Elaine and Brian were rushed to the IWK in Halifax by ambulance after an orthopedic scan revealed Brian had stage 4 neuroblastoma.
“It was a tumour mass attacking all the organs,” Albert said.
Brian had suffered pain in his leg, stomach and hip for weeks. They had been to a walk-in clinic and thought it was growing pains. Suddenly, they were headed to the IWK for a lifesaving 500-day treatment plan.
“It’s a one-shot deal to get cured and clean,” Elaine said. “If you relapse, you die from it.”
In the meantime, Albert, a self-employed carpenter who also does kitchen installs for Gillis Home Hardware, was home alone.
He said they’ve lived there 20 years and when Francis moved to adjacent property 14 years ago, their children became instant friends and they did as well.
After Elaine left for the IWK, Francis was at his door with a plate of pork chops, mashed potatoes and salad. That continued night after night for 500 days.
Francis, whose family includes son Jolton, 3, Jaron, 12, and Kaley, 21, said they were devastated after hearing Brian had cancer.
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like,” she said. “It must have been the most terrifying thing in the world.”
She said Albert was there alone pretty much for a year.
“It’s pretty powerless when there’s nothing you can do to help,” she said. “The least I could do was send over a plate to him every day. It didn’t seem like much under the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Elaine had support with lots of family living in Halifax. The 500 days away included Brian enduring two trips to hospitals in Toronto, six rounds of chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, 13 rounds of radiation and five months of immune therapy. Brian recovered fully and has an annual checkup in Halifax.
Overwhelmed by her neighbour's kindness, Elaine said it made them realize how important neighbours are.
“I offered her stuff, she wouldn’t take anything," Elaine said. “Joline would just say, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’"
Meanwhile, Francis said her family was planning their first trip to Walt Disney World for March break when the pandemic lockdown began.
“When everything shut down the trip was cancelled, the kids were devastated.”
As public health restrictions slowly began to be lifted, one bright light was having their neighbours in their bubble.
Jolton is so close to Albert he calls him, ‘Uncle.’
“They are like best friends, together all the time.”
To make up for the loss of the Disney trip, her children were looking at photos of playsets online. When they came across a photo of an enormous bulldozer playset, Jolton immediately said he wanted it.
Jolton showed Albert the photo and he knew then how he could pay the family back.
Francis opened an account at Gillis Building Supplies with their trip funds but the painstaking labour came from Albert.
“He worked day and night on the bulldozer in our backyard and wouldn’t take anything in return,” she said. “He didn’t have any blueprints or specs, just looked at the picture and built it.”
However, there was a little help. Whenever Jolton would see Albert out working on it, he’d grab his plastic drill.
“He’d be out the back door to go over and help Uncle.”
Albert said it was a massive challenge that took three weeks of nights and weekends.
“I’d get home from work and there’d be a beer waiting in the garage for me and I’d go back to working on it,” he said.
Francis said her children have constantly used the playset since it was built. Motorists have also stopped, taken photos and even asked for blueprints, but were told the specs are simply in Albert’s head, she said.
“He keeps adding to it, making it even better,” she said. “Through this whole COVID-19 experience something wonderful came out of it because of our neighbours.”
Assistant carpenter Jolton, agrees.
“I love it,” he said.
Albert is noted for his kindness. During the lockdown Albert organized a free COVID-19 game night giving away things he built, including 40 cellphone holders. There were also doll houses, cat beds and bird houses.
“He’d play the game every Saturday night at 7 p.m. and bring the prize right to their house,” Elaine said. “Albert would help anyone. He has a pure heart.”