Want a Happy New Year for 12 months? Hint: Kindness
It’s the first day of the year and tomorrow morning here in New England my cold, hectic schedule resumes. The sentiment of “the holiday spirit lasting the whole year through” may be gone by seven o'clock in the morning.
I pondered that spirit carefully. I want this long winter season to be little better this year. Maybe there's some practical wisdom to hold onto more than just a calendar marking the days until summer returns.
I'm curious about one big contributing factor to a joyful season; a time when it’s socially acceptable to be kinder to everyone.
This January 1st, I'm remembering an act of kindness that changed my heart during a tough and relentless time.
When we pulled into Friendly’s the boys were really hungry and cranky. "Hangry" was the new and excellent word for the mood of that moment. I was driving around looking for a farm-to-table lunch place to get a good cup of soup. I hadn’t planned for meals that day. I planned for a long drive, transporting my mom, and getting her to the doctor on time. Now it was nearly two o’clock and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast at seven.
After meandering the city side roads for 20 minutes, the big red Friendly’s logo signaled comfort food over the health food fare I’d hoped for. My decision, “good enough” left the kids cheering for my choice. The roof was shadowing most of the open parking spaces but I found a sunny spot. I wanted us to return to a warm car on this bright but freezing February day.
The boys were delighted. My mother said she was craving a hamburger which was a sign that she was feeling much better than last night when I was encouraging her to take spoonfuls of bone broth.
William, who was eleven years old, attentively hopped out, opened the passenger door, and unbuckled her seatbelt. He reached to support my mother’s back and help her out of the car.
“No,” she said leaning back into the car, “you can go inside and eat, I want to take a nap.”
“Ok, Mom,” I responded, “you’re sure?”
“Oh I’m really sure,” she answered as her eyes were beginning to close.
“But I thought you were hungry?”
“It comes and goes.”
William stepped back and Wyeth who was ten years old but had known his grandmother differently, took her word before Will and I could imagine leaving her in the parking lot alone. He stood outside the open passenger door and moved a lever that eased my mom into a reclined position. Her face was in the shade and her body would be warmed in the winter sunlight.
But Wyeth wanted her face in the sun too. So he lifted the seat a bit until his grandmother was relaxed, eyes closed, but full in sun.
Hesitantly, only the three of us went inside to have lunch at Friendly’s. The hostess offered us a booth near the window. I requested a tall table where I could see over the booths and into the car.
I sat the boys down and went back to the car to check on my mom. I’d probably left her alone for ninety seconds. I hoped she’d change her mind and I could walk with her inside to eat with us.
She was already asleep. I told myself she was content. I could have stayed there beside her. I was more concerned than hungry. But I needed to be inside. The boys got their burgers and fries while I ordered a fish sandwich.
When the waitress asked how the boys had a day off from school, I simply said, “We’re visiting from New Hampshire.” The detailed truth was I needed to pull them from school because I couldn’t be two places at once: doctor’s appointment vs. school pick-up time.
These days of caregiving were filled with sleepless nights, constant phone calls, an onslaught of medical terms that needed to be navigated... but also, in all the chaos, moments of unforgettable clarity. In one motion I scanned this restaurant and took a mental photograph.
I saw a man holding his baby to comfort her while his family finished dessert. I noticed a young lesbian couple sharing a burger, fries and a salad while reaching across holding each other’s hand. There was an elderly couple at a booth eating two large candy-covered sundaes. In the next booth a man sat alone drinking a soda until it seemed like his date arrived. As a woman walked up to his table to introduce herself, he stood to greet her in a formal manner. This dining room was bustling full of stories.
“I think we need to move back to a city,” I thought out loud.
“Can we have dessert, Mom?”
“Of course, can you order with the waitress while I go check on G'ma (pronounce gahh-mah)?”
The boys ordered two mint monster sundaes. I couldn’t imagine a worse combination of mint chocolate chip ice cream with cherries and peanut butter cups. Together the design creates a funny frowning face staring out from a silver ice cream bowl. It’s a best seller on the Friendly’s kid’s menu.
Outside, my mom was still resting. I noticed the sun had moved but the car was still warm enough. She seemed peaceful. I went back inside again.
I thanked the boys for being well-behaved. Normally, the boys would fight a bit, but today they were laughing with each other and were particularly attentive at her doctor’s office.
I was exhausted but grateful. I’m not sure what else I felt except a practical appreciation for my boys allowing me to be both a mom to them and a daughter to my mom at this complicated time.
Our next step was a small one. Back to the car.
As I pulled on my jacket, I signaled to the waitress for the check.
“I think we’re finally ready to go,” I attempted a joke at our slow-paced lunch.
“You’re all set,” she said.
“Yes, just the check please.” I agreed.
“You’re set.” She looked at me with a slight and knowing smile.
Something was happening. The restaurant routine was off. I was confused because I didn’t understand her response. Had I forgotten that I’d already paid? Was sleep deprivation tilting my memory? I still had my bank card in my hand.
“For the bill?”
“Yes.” But she didn’t move.
“Can I pay it?”
“The couple that just walked out took care of your table.” she grinned.
I glanced around. No one was in our section anymore except one family in a booth with two toddlers.
“What?” I asked again. But as I began to wonder, my heart already knew. I burst into tears... surprising myself as I collapsed my head into my arms on the table.
This was an act of kindness and it was powerful.
“Is she laughing or crying?” I heard the boys ask each other.
“I think she’s crying,” offered the waitress.
“Why?” asked one of my boys.
“I’m just grateful for kindness right now,” I said as I recovered.
The waitress explained, “They told me to tell you: ‘we had a little extra and so we wanted to share it.”
“Well they shared a lot. That was a big gift. That was...” and I started to cry again.
I saw two women drive out of the parking lot. I wanted to chase them and thank them. It was too late but I’m sure this couple was the gift givers. The waitress said the people who paid wanted to stay anonymous.
I looked out to our car. My mom was awake. I wanted to bring her something. A treat. Ice cream, of course. Before this recent illness, she loved ice cream. Any kind. All the time.
“I also need to buy a small cup of ice cream for my mom.”
“We’ll throw that in for you.”
“No, I want to pay.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“It’s all set”
“Can I tip you? I don’t have cash.”
“The couple took care of my tip too,” said our waitress.
My breath started to fluff again and as I could feel tears swelling up, the boys looked at each other as if this was a comedy act. “Here she goes again...” they laughed.
I laughed and I cried at the same time. The waitress brought a bag with the coffee ice cream in a cup. I thanked her as much as I could.
My mom wasn’t hungry for ice cream. As we drove back towards her house, she perked up again.
Ten minutes from home she asked, “I’m really hungry for a hamburger. Can we stop for a hamburger?” The boys laughed at the irony because it was undeniable. I was just happy she was hungry again.
Believe it or not, we did stop again. At this next burger restaurant, the boys suggested we pay for the person behind us in line.
Kindness is the spirit of joy.