Sunday, June 26, 2011

"...the kindness of strangers"

The other day a blog reader asked me if I thought some of the experiences that I blog about are entirely unique and wondered if other people share similar stories and anecdotes, suggesting that perhaps her life might not be as rich as most.  I know she's well travelled, outgoing, and well-liked, so she has her own set of stories. Everyone does; some just have more than others.  Some we share, some we keep secret, some we never forget.

The summer heat and humidity in Nebraska can be especially oppressive when you don't have much money and few resources to seek relief.  Frequently on especially sultry days, I'd walk the four kids to a branch of the public library that wasn't too far from home and we'd enjoy a children's story hour in the quiet air conditioned building.  After checking out a few books, we'd head out further and stop for a frozen treat.  One day, as we pushed young Olivia in her stroller and the other three kids each took a hand, we approached an older man who was supported by his walker and wearing clothes that were completely inappropriate for the heat and humidity: a thin winter jacket, a long-sleeved flannel shirt over a t-shirt, clip-on suspenders ... and plaid trousers down around his ankles.  He wasn't wearing any underwear.

As we got closer, I steered the kids to the edge of the sidewalk anticipating that we'd avoid him physically since we were a large group, but I also hoped to shield the kid's view of  his vulnerability as he vainly attempted to retrieve his pants.  It was then that we heard onlookers and passersby catcalling, whistling, and shouting from across the street or from cars that slowly drove past, making rude and insulting comments amusing themselves or their companions with what they thought were clever put-downs.  I hated those people.  

So, I stopped and helped him.  He smelled of urine and the neglect of hygiene, but he was aware.  His arthritic bones and aging muscles prevented him from reaching down for his pants, so he stood quietly as I pulled them up and clipped his four suspenders back in place at equal distances around his waistline.  He thanked me, sincerely, and I told him to have a nice day. I've never forgotten it.

It was on that same main drag of South Omaha where a few months later I stood on the corner with the four kids in the pouring, chilling rain.  We were waiting for a bus, which we would take downtown, get a transfer to cross town and eventually get to Children's Hospital where Olivia was well known.  She had weekly appointments for blood counts and routines of injections and infusions, sometimes requiring overnight stays or -- if results and reports weren't positive -- she'd be admitted for several days in isolation.  We couldn't anticipate the outcome of the day on those frequent trips, and since Stephen was commuting over an hour away, transportation wasn't always convenient or to our advantage.  As the rain pelted down, our chilled breath showed, and the five of us waited at the bus stop, dripping in our slickers, a sleek Cadillac pulled up to the curb and stopped.  Luxury cars were not common in our neighbourhood, and luxury car owners usually made quick time when driving through it. The electric window lowered, and an expensively coiffed, well dressed woman in her 60's leaned over the passenger side and called out, asking if we needed a ride.

I was tired, stressed, wet, and faced an hour's trip by bus to the hospital --a car ride would make it in fifteen minutes. I accepted her simple offer, and filed the four dripping kids in the back onto her leather seats and joined her in front, shaking out my umbrella before closing the door.  Never showing concern for bringing the rain into her fancy car, she chatted politely all the way to the front door of the hospital, then let us off, and told us all to have a good day.  I've never forgotten it.

Not much longer after that we made the move from Omaha to New Jersey.  (You might have read about that adventure in an earlier blog entry.)   For us it truly was an adventure.  We took advantage of the long trip to call on my sister's family in central Tennessee.  We spent just a few days together, and though my stress level was high and concerns were heavy, we were glad for the opportunity to visit.  Our home in urban Omaha, suffering for repair, hadn't yet sold, we were travelling in a 30 year-old vehicle crammed with possessions and pets, and Olivia had only a small window of freedom in between her last Omaha hospital visit and checking in at the hospital in New Jersey where they were expecting her. I imagine that to my sister, who lived comfortably in the country, we looked bedraggled, hassled, and hard scrabbled.

When it was time to leave her and continue on our adventure, she expressed her concern for our safety and comfort, and wished us luck.  It was genuine and it revealed a sort of kind-hearted nature she doesn't openly share -- we weren't a 'share your feelings', affectionate type of family.  She hugged me, and we kissed cheeks.  Though she is generous in every other capacity, this rare gesture of affection moved me, and the softness of her cheek vividly stays with me.  I've never forgotten it.
Years later, when my folks were anticipating a trip to visit us, Dad had several eBay (tm) purchases delivered to us to avoid slow and expensive postage to Canada.  He was completing his collection of Alden Nowlan works and had many first editions including some limited printing chapbooks.  We were in the car on our way to lunch when Dad opened a package containing The Best of Alden Nowlan and he quickly thumbed through it to find his favourite poem.  He quietly read it and passed it to me suggesting I read it before going into the restaurant, mentioning that Nowlan was his favourite poet.

But I'm not a fan of poetry.  I find it either poorly written, too esoteric to understand, or the writing will evoke difficult emotions such as loneliness, melancholic nostalgia, or heartfelt expressions of love or regret which I find overwhelming.  Dad insisted, and so I reluctantly read:
Tenth Wedding Anniversary

This is neither to
take back what was given
in rage, nor to deny the scars
I send you no Valentine card.
We are human and didn't
live happily ever after.
We are what our children
promise they'll never be --
a man and a woman
who get on each other's
nerves at times, and have traded
glares of the purest hate.
This is only to say there has never been
a moment in ten years
when I ceased to be
conscious of your presence
in the universe, never
a thought of mine in all that time
that wasn't superimposed
on my constant awareness of
your separate existence.
If the inhabitants of
the earth depended
for their survival on my
keeping them always
in my mind, my world would be
empty -- except for you.

For me it was gut-wrenchingly emotional, and it took me several moments to regain my composure before we all went into the restaurant; me, red-eyed, and sniffling.  I've never forgotten it, and said as much the very next time they visited months later and we returned to the same restaurant.

That time, it was a  nice spring day as we pulled into the parking lot, when we noticed an old man struggling with a cane.  He wasn't stumbling exactly, but it was clear he was having a problem, and then it became stunningly clear.  He had soiled himself with a most foul and copious combination of diarrhea and solid waste.  He was immobilized standing with oozing trousers as lumps fell about him from under his pant leg onto the asphalt while cars maneuvered for parking spaces. The old man was frantically gripping his backside trying to stanch his bowels with one hand while balancing himself on his cane with the other. Dad parked, and I approached him asking if he needed help to get comfortable or if there was someone we could call for him.  He was humiliated; his body had betrayed him and he reluctantly admitted that he needed assistance. I escorted him to his car, laid his cardigan on the seat, and he said he'd just wait for his son to drive him home.  I joined my folks as we were seated at the table, reminding them how emotional it was on our last visit and here were tears again. We all remembered.

Some things you just don't forget.

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