By now, our three kids were tucked in our guest room sleeping, together in the basement. John and I decided to also sleep downstairs, nearby on the playroom couch. The wind was already howling loudly-it was practically deafening. Strangely, the only reprieve was a periodic loud noise that would jolt us. While the rain flowed steadily and hard, it was hardly audible or at least definable given the other terrifying noises outside of our home. By the next morning, I would realize the thunderous and occasional loud booming sounds were trees crashing all around….on our street, in our yard, in some cases, through the roofs of the houses of neighbors.
Earlier that day, John, the kids and I had decided to take our weekly family walk around a local park. The sun shone, yet we could feel as we walked that the wind was beginning to pickup. Reports throughout the week had shown the impending threat of Hurricane Sandy, a monstrous storm that, within hours, would devastate much of the tri-state area and significantly impact our own town. I have heard the expression, “The calm before the storm,” throughout my life. Although I didn’t voice it aloud as we walked with the kids, I knew the description applied at that moment.
That night, as I lay on the sofa, I closed my eyes, praying that any trees weakened by past year’s October snowstorm had already been removed. And then I fell into a deep sleep. When we woke up, I looked over at John who seemed to be stirring. It was our 13th wedding anniversary, but celebrating was the last thing on my mind. I ran to the basement room where the kids were sleeping. They were already up, hanging out, talking together in bed. “Mom, the lights are still out!” The irony of my next thought would only hit me months later. Collectively, Ethan, Charlie and I are missing a total of forty-two fingers and toes. Yet, as John and I rushed over and hugged our children, I said a silent prayer of thanks. After all, my family, thankfully, was fully in-tact.
I looked outside. There were some trees and branches down, but everything otherwise seemed okay. With no ability to turn on the news, we had yet to learn that the storm proved to be more of a monster than we could tell, at least from our immediate vantage. Although losing power for almost two weeks was difficult, we were so grateful that our friends with generators opened up their homes to us unconditionally. Unlike ours, many towns were flooded by the Hurricane, utterly devastated within minutes. But the storm also brought out the best in people with many acts of kindness exhibited across the area. And I had seen it many times in past crises when people from all over the U.S. were inspired to send needed goods, or even travel far distances to lend a hand. It was as if when tragedy strikes, somehow an internal alarm bell seems to ring, with masses of people ready to help one another, all for the common good.
Last month I was running to make the NJ transit train home from Grand Central. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, but that was hardly my priority. I knew that Savanna went home from gymnastics early not feeling well, and I rushed to make an earlier train to make sure she spent the last few hours of her day with me by her side. As I sprinted past other commuters, I noticed a young woman sitting on the floor. She had a sign that simply read, “Please help us.” Next to her was a young child around the age of three sleeping next to her. I stopped in my tracks, instantly choked up. I thought about the most recent, “Pay It Forward” moment I recently mentioned in a blog, where yet another conductor assumed I should receive the discount fare based on my physical difference. I reached into my wallet, and grabbed a $5.00 bill, handing it to the woman. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she softly chimed in my direction. I smiled back, but looked around and noticed that we were surrounded by countless others, simply rushing through their day, trying to get home to their loved ones. At once I felt a chill penetrate my bones, along with total confusion mixed with sorrow. I felt cold at the thought of her and her young child sitting on the stone, uncomfortable floor, with no better alternative. Sorrow for the scene, as one mother to another, and confusion about how everyone else could simply be passing her by. While I appreciate that it is unrealistic to think that everyone would stop to help yet another homeless person in New York, this felt different. Perhaps because it was Valentine’s Day, I felt like this was a day especially devoted to love.
During the train ride home, I thought further on the “Pay it Forward” concept. I began to think about how after times of terror or crisis, people admirably leap into action to help one another. I even remembered that after the Newtown CT school shooting in December, Ann Curry tweeted, “Imagine if all of us committed 20 acts of kindness to honor each child lost. I’m in if you’re in.” The tweet prompted a flurry of supportive comments and initiatives in response. While it was heartwarming and wonderful, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I thought the responses to Curry’s effort were great, but asked myself, “Why can’t more people simply be kind just for the sake of kindness? Why does it have to take a natural disaster or horrific tragedy to prompt a genuine act of kindness?” That’s not to say that people aren’t doing good things every day, without prompting. There is Jeremiah Anthony, the teen who set up a “West Bros High” Twitter account to send compliments and flattering messages to other students aimed at raising their self-esteem and to counter bullying. His effort is ingenious and inspiring. And there are others like that, to be sure.
Back on the train the next morning, another experience helped to form an answer to my question. Although this time I was armed with a ticket, yet another train conductor noticed my hands. He leaned over in my ear, “Excuse me Miss, but you really should consider not paying the full price for tickets. Why do it if you don’t have to?” He offered with a wink and a genuine smile. In that moment, (and yes, I enjoyed his calling me “Miss” and not “Ma’am,”) it dawned on me that I’m being too hard on humanity. Even if they aren’t a Jeremiah Anthony, people are self-motivated to be kind to one another all the time. Although collective acts of kindness in times of tragedy may grab more attention, there is so much more going on. In my case, my physical difference actually often brings these efforts out in people, in ways that I used to resent, but now appreciate on a different level. And it’s not just from train conductors. Later the same day I tried to give money to a homeless woman on the subway. I was admittedly taken aback when she took one look at my hands and tried to return the donation. She was showing me her kindness, I suppose, and imagined I needed the money more given my physical difference. And then the most meaningful act of kindness happened to me the following week. A blog follower named Douglas Jones (whom I have never had the privilege of meeting) paid attention to my recent Facebook posts about how cold my hands have been in the frigid winter air. Douglas knitted me a pair of custom-made warm black angora mittens, and mailed them to me. The mittens are in a word, perfect. And then, so floored by Doug’s act of kindness to me, it inspired my dear friend Ayala, founder of “Evelyn’s Kitchen,” to send goodies to Douglas on my behalf.
I no longer feel cold, inside or out.
My brother Ted came to visit recently, and when it was time for him to leave, I drove him to the train station. However, I knew we were cutting it close. “Ted, what time did you say your train was leaving?” “In four minutes,” he responded a bit anxiously. “And I still have to get a ticket.” At that, I reached into my bag and grabbed one of my pre-purchased tickets to New York. “Ted, take this.” He tried to refuse, but I insisted. “Teddy, come to think of it, I took a train ride the other day and they were short a train conductor so no one came to collect my ticket. I’m going to Pay It Forward with you. “Gee Meg, thanks.” And then, he looked at me with a huge grin. “Come to think of it, if these are the perks, your Pay it Forward efforts makes people really want to hang around you A LOT!” We both laughed as he fled from my car, easily making his train.