Most every day in an Eldersburg neighborhood of green lawns and tidy homes, a woman bearing an evening meal heads for the Gates house.
Carol Gates, before she died of cancer last September, dubbed the dinners cooked by neighbors "Meals on Feet." Now her husband, Herbert, who also has cancer, is the recipient of his neighbors' generosity.
"What a blessing it is to have people like this," says Mr. Gates in a weak, gravelly voice. "It makes you thankful you're still alive."
Mr. Gates, 56, has inoperable cancer. He learned last April, as his wife suffered through the final stages of her disease, that a tumor in his lower back had wrapped around his spine.
He says doctors told him chemotherapy and radiation treatments often make his type of cancer even worse. "There is no treatment for what I've got," says Mr. Gates.
He takes medicine to control the pain. He says he has already lived longer than doctors said he would.
Mr. Gates, who was a machinist at ASC Corp. in Owings Mills, hasn't been able to work for 14 months. But he is able to get around, although he's weak and thin, and would probably be thinner if it weren't for caring neighbors.
Women from the neighborhood have delivered meals to his house for one year. They started when Mrs. Gates, a superb baker who gave hot rolls and bread to neighbors, became too weak to cook regularly.
At first they made dinner for the couple two days a week. As Mrs. Gates became sicker -- never complaining, always grateful -- they began making it three days a week.
When she died in September, leaving Mr. Gates alone, they started bringing him dinner five days a week.
Sharon Hammond, who lives across the street from the Gates house, suggested the dinner network during a sidewalk conversation with neighbors. Such conversations are commonplace on Tamarack Circle in the subdivision called the Village.
Most residents are first-time homeowners who moved in when the community sprouted from farmland eight years ago. They came to work and rear families.
The Gateses, who moved in when everybody else did, were older. They came from Glen Burnie hungry for a taste of the country.
The younger neighbors adopted them as family, especially the Hammonds. Sam Hammond, a Howard County police officer out waxing his car on a sunny morning, says they loved the Gateses as if they were their parents.
Mrs. Gates made no secret of her bone cancer. Nor did she hide the fact that she wanted to keep her independence to the end. She wanted to die at home.
So Ms. Hammond and seven other neighbors quickly decided to help by preparing dinners. The others are Sharon Allia, Jocelyn Fowble, Colleen Glauser, Mary Harwood, Jodi O'Connell, Denise Snyder and Terry Tamburo.
Mrs. Gates' cancer spread to her liver. In September, at the age of 54, she died at home.
"Meals on Feet" began making dinners for Mr.Gates five days a week. Based on a schedule devised three months at a time, each of the women cooks for him about three times a month.
They merely cook a little extra while cooking for their own families. And they often cook something a little extra special, such as steamed shrimp or cherry pie. "My husband says, 'Oh, it must be Herb's night for dinner. We're eating good tonight,' " Ms. Harwood says.
The women cook and deliver the meals, but their husbands help, too, especially Mr. Hammond, by driving Mr. Gates to the store, running errands, shoveling snow, taking out his trash, washing his car and mowing his lawn.
"That's just the kind of people who live in this neighborhood," says Mr. Gates' 31-year-old daughter, Debbie Fox. She lives in Taylorsville, a 15-minute drive west. She visits him nearly every day and calls him several times a day. She's his main helper. "I'm on his push-button phone before 911," she says, laughing.
The neighbors have been a blessing to her as well as to her parents, she says.
They relieve her of much worry.
On weekends she takes her father out for pizza with her family, or her brother, David, drives up from Laurel with his family and cooks dinner on the grill, or Mr. Gates eats frozen dinners.
But soon it's Monday, and Meals on Feet comes knocking.
The neighbors say that helping Mr. Gates, and Mrs. Gates before she died, has made them feel good. They haven't sought publicity, but they say they don't mind their story in the newspaper; maybe others will read what they've done and help someone in their block.
Helping the Gateses has taught their children a lesson, they say. Ms. Fowble's 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, asked why her mother cooked for a neighbor.
Ms. Fowble told her: "That's what being a good neighbor is all about."
Ms. Snyder's children send cards along with their mother's food. They made Mr. Gates an Easter basket and enclosed a hand-made Easter card. They draw him pictures of Ninja Turtles.
Ms. Snyder told him that her children can see how much love is in his face.
Not long ago, Mr. Gates says, one of Ms. Snyder's daughters came along on a dinner delivery. The little girl climbed up on the porch, reached out and wrapped both arms around his weak legs.
"I love you," she said.
"It makes you want to keep on living," says Mr. Gates.