Storytime: The Kindness of Acquaintances

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Kindness from an unexpected source.

Depending how you look at it, people don’t really say all that much in the course of a day. Generally we talk about nothing or convey information about the world around us that is ephemeral and momentary. If you think back over your conversations from last week or even from yesterday it’s very likely you’ll remember almost none of it word for word. Many times you won’t even remember the topic you spoke about. Yet some words and some conversations linger.

When I think of those types of conversations, dozens come to mind but this one was of someone I almost used to know. Someone I am still “friends” with in the sense that we are friends on Facebook but we haven’t spoken to each other in over 10 years because we were never close enough. I mean this in an endearing way. I wished her no ill, we had no feuds, but if we’re honest about our “friendship”, we probably passed no more than a few thousand words between us in our three or four years of being “friends”.

But her moment stays with me.

It was the morning of Isaac’s funeral and everyone was at her house getting ready. We’d had a big party the night before and we’d all slept in a pile together like puppies on the floor. Huddling together to feel warm and alive and safe. I was being particularly dramatic and sad upon waking, not wanting to go to the funeral. Instead I lay on floor whining and pitching a fit any time someone would try to move me. Going to the funeral was too solid for me. It would mean he was really dead and facing it, even with a dozen people supporting me, felt like a task I would never be equipped to handle. Everyone had decided the best course of action was to let me ride out my feelings and steered clear as they got ready.

Nicole, whose house it was, seemed fine with me pretending I was a lump for a bit but eventually as the morning wore on, she decided it was her job to try to get me dressed and together for the wake. As I said, Nicole and I had a curious relationship up until this point and while we’d been friendly we’d never really been alone together, never without other bodies running interference for us. On paper it almost worked. She was earnest but accident prone in a way that made me look graceful. She was sweet, but we had lived lives that had diverged too early for either of us to really get invested in each other. We were friends with mutual friends. Acquaintances in any other timeline and only a group of misfits that made everyone’s jagged pieces fit brought us together to try and pretend we were more than that.

The fact that we didn’t really know each other intimately didn’t seem to matter as she dragged me around by my arms, as if I were a toddler, trying to convince me to get dressed. She propped me up on my feet, brought me upstairs with my bag of clothes and slammed the door behind us trapping me like a small, frightened animal. I remember hearing the muffled voices and footsteps through the door, the sound of our friends scurrying around the giant house, paying no mind to us. I watched her careful hands pull each article of clothing out of my bag to set them on the floor in front of me as if they were an offering for an altar. Then she was hands on hips, face drawn and tired like the rest of us, commanding me to get dressed. There was a cold shock of shame and indecency when she pulled my pajama top over my head trying to spur me into action followed by squeaks and indignant noises as she turned away to give me privacy, the whole time muttering under her breath as she rooted through my bag for matching socks.

In retrospect I can see what is so endearing about this moment for me. I would even use this moment later to fill in a story I wrote that included a touching scene between a mother helping her daughter prepare for a wedding. This is what good parents do for their children, I thought, they take care of them when it seems impossible to care.  But she wasn’t my parent. She was almost no one. This was Nicole who I’d only ever had one conversation alone with it, and it was about jeans. This was Nicole who dripped paint in her eye and needed three people to hold her as they flushed it from her face. This was Nicole who dropped hammers on her feet and always had to be bandaged after every building session. This was a kindness from a person who felt miles away from me at the best of times. This was someone who owed me nothing and I deserved nothing from.

I told myself I was doing this for her and no one else. And after my dress was firmly on my body and after she finished mushing makeup around on my face only then did she sit on the bed next to me. Only then did the words start to flow. She said the things people say when they don’t know what to say. The things they think people want to hear because they don’t know how to help. She said the words I would hear over and over every time someone died after this. The world’s least convincing speech.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t close to Isaac, or that his death hadn’t affected her but maybe in some ways she was shielded by other closer bodies. As if he had been a grenade that was hurled at all of us and I’d just happen to take a larger chunk of the shrapnel to shield her. She said it would be okay. That everything happens for a reason. That people are basically good. That he loved me. That he loved everyone. While she said these lies she brushed my long, thin hair. She brushed my hair so slowly and so methodically you might have thought it –  or even I – was glass. Tears ran down her face while she did this and then tears ran down my face as she twisted the hair up into braids and curls. And she smiled and she was strong.

Despite myself and despite not being close to her I felt warm and comforted. For the flicker of a second, it felt as though one drop of care might even be enough un-spoil all these millions of moments of sadness. And I said nothing. I sat there looking down at my feet and feeling ashamed and disquieted by grief. I felt selfish and self-centered that I couldn’t return her kindness. Her strength. It wouldn’t be for almost another hour that I spoke at all, and an even more embarrassing amount of time before I said the right words.

You see everyone is always talking. Sometimes they talk too much. Sometimes they don’t talk enough. They are saying the wrong words. They are doing the wrong things. They have bad timing. They ruin good moments. But later that day, I found myself under the archway in the funeral home talking about nothing at all, wasting my words to hear my own breath when she walked by.

It came out like a whisper as she passed.

“Thank you.”

Even though it felt woefully inefficient and the words had come out at the wrong time, in the wrong place, she understood the feeling and smiled at me as if to say it was nothing. In that moment I felt like no words are really wasted. I could have said all of the words and none of the words but it would have never been enough to repay the kindness. Maybe though, these perfectly simple words are still the best words. A gratitude in return for a kindness that is given freely.

So those words survive because of that. We survive because of that.

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