A few months ago, a beautiful 4-year-old boy, with sandy blond hair and inquisitive clear blue eyes began appearing at my doorstep.
He rode his 2-wheeler bike up our street in search of children to play with.
I had never seen him before, and when he first asked if he could come into my house, I asked him who he was and where he lived.
Gary (his name has been changed) pointed across the street and three houses down, just at the bend at the bottom of the hill, and said: "We live there."
I had never seen a For Sale sign at that home, so I was a bit puzzled. Perhaps Gary was staying with family for a visit. Perhaps he was pointing to a house slightly further down, one that was out of my periphery.
I told him that he could play in our front yard, so his parents could see him when they came looking. I then sat on the front porch, while Gary and my girls played.
Two hours passed, and no one came.
After a little while, I started getting worried that no one had even bothered trying to find him. So I asked him a few questions. He lived with his mother and father, he said, as well as a baby brother. They were new to the neighborhood.
When it was time for dinner, I walked with Gary to the curb, and watched him cross the street. Sure enough, he entered the home at the bend in the road.
This sort of thing went on for a month or so: Gary would show up, unannounced, and enter our home to play. I would wait for several minutes looking for a parent to let them know their child was with me. No one ever came.
I finally met Gary's mom six weeks later. She explained to me that they were renovating the house at the bottom of the bend, but not yet living there yet. She said they would move in in a few weeks from a nearby town.
I told her that Gary had been playing at my house almost every single day, including weekends, for over a month. I asked if she wanted my phone number. She declined.
I told her that Gary crossed the street all the time by himself, and that I was worried because drivers sped around the corner all the time, in an attempt to cut through the traffic off the main road.
"Well, Gary doesn't listen to me," she said. "Plus he's so darn independent. The other day, I napped on the couch with the baby for two hours, and I woke up to realize that Gary had been gone that whole time!" She then chuckled a bit, not at all concerned that Gary could get lost, or hurt, or injured, or worse, during such extended absences.
I returned home that day, trying to look at things from Gary's mother's perspective. Was I being overly judgmental, or were Gary's parents somewhat neglectful (his father seemed equally obtuse)? Was I a helicopter parent, and Gary's parents more laid back, just as my own parents were when I was a kid?
But then I realized that there was a big difference between Gary's run of the neighborhood and my own as a child. My parents knew the people living at every house on the street. For every friend I visited, my parents knew their parents, and had their phone number. And they always knew where I was. Always.
I tried my best to keep track of Gary, but one time, when I escorted him outside to watch him walk home, he ran in the opposite direction of his house and up the block. I called out to him, and he refused to answer. He stood at the top of the street, looked down toward me, eyed me carefully, and took off further up the block.
I saw Gary's mother only one more time, on the eve of our move out of our neighborhood. I tried to address, in the gentlest but most straightforward manner, Gary's sprints across the street during rush hour, and his solo walks blocks from his home.
She shrugged. "I know, I'm so afraid someone's going to call Child Protective Services on us!"
I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing at all.
The night before the moving truck came, at 9 p.m., Gary was once again at my front door. "Honey," I whispered, "the girls are sleeping, and you should be at home."
"I know," Gary said. "I just wanted to give this to Mira before she moved because I'll miss her." Gary then handed me a brightly-colored squirt gun. "I have two," he continued, "and I thought she should have one of them."
I placed my hand on Gary's head, and pushed some of the stray hairs out of his face. He was so young, just four, to be out so late by himself. I glanced down at the end of the road. Once again, there was no parent to be found.
"Thank you, sweetie." I said. "Why don't we get you back home?"
I put the squirt gun down, and reached for Gary's small, pale hand.
And we crossed the street together for the last time.
Anjali lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two young girls.