It’s February in Sacramento. California snow has been falling – blossoms from neighborhood fruit trees dusting the ground with white, or pink, depending on the fruit. This is the reason so many of us put up with California’s high prices, unresponsive government, and unrelenting taxes – this glorious, glorious weather. While much of the country is still buried in snow, shivering, our Sacramento spring has arrived. Last week the weather was in the upper 70s. People are out gardening, pulling weeds away from the daffodils. The urge to plant new flowers overwhelms even me, a woman with the blackest of thumbs. The weather will chill again, temporarily, but springtime weather has undeniably begun.
Last week, my sister was visiting. I’d pulled the ultimate bait and switch on her, a con worthy of Slippin’ Jimmy. She’d made plans to come see me months ago when I was struggling with severe abdominal pain, the knowledge of cancer spreading through my abdomen and the thought that this time, it might be unstoppable. This new growth had jumped out of my liver and was seeding everywhere, including spots in my lungs. It had the potential to be the beginning of the end, we all thought so. By the time her plane pulled into the airport, I’d had 4 infusions of my 9th treatment regimen, Kadcyla aka TDM1, and was in remission, my second. It happened with breathtaking speed, from remission to cancer explosion to remission again. This is the easiest chemo I’d ever done, the pain is much better, energy level higher, and I’m able to think about the near future without worry again. Even my chemo brain seems to be recovering; concentration improved. I can read again and do puzzles that I haven’t been able to focus on for years. I have some pain, always now, but it is being managed well. My only new side effect is neuropathy - numb fingers and toes. A very small price to pay.
My sister and I had a nice, girlish visit. A visit to a salon, shopping and lunch at Nordstrom. For me, a very full day, lots of walking. We came home and were chatting in my living room, both of us idly looking out my picture window to the street. Part of my view is blocked by a neighbor’s fence which encloses his front yard, built after he moved in. I remember when I could look out the window and see the whole of my pretty, post-war curvy street with its small, neat little homes, wave to my neighbors from the porch, see the blooming trees and flowers beyond. With that fence, I’m now cut off from half the neighborhood, my street starting right in front of my house, the light diminished and the house darker.
Because of the fence, I heard laughing before I saw them. A car’s hood silently appeared, then four young men and a girl pushing a vehicle of the kind I had driven for decades: nondescript, old. A beater, we called it, the color the same rusty red as the leftover blood on a cotton ball after a poke. My street is on a slight incline so they were pushing uphill, two boy’s backs on the car’s trunk, wiry leg muscles straining, another positioned on the right side of the car, pushing from the open door. Inside, predictably, a girl steering, and beside her, another male. The boys, as I call them, were really young men. All had long hair, short sleeves, and could have been anywhere from 17 to 27 for all I could tell. They were laughing despite the circumstances, weather making it impossible to be unhappy, even in the face of lost transportation. I watched a minute and paid silent homage to all of my old beaters who had to be pushed off the road after some mysterious piece inside stopped working. How many times had I been that girl, steering, as others pushed me out of danger? Thank goodness those days are over. I turned away.
My sister spoke, in a slightly urgent voice. “They’re thirsty, Ann.”
“What?” I said, confused. “How do you know?”
“They just are.”
“Did you hear them say something?” I looked at her. I was confused, both by the urgency and certainty in her voice.
“It’s hot.” She repeated. “They’re thirsty.”
I went to the kitchen. I had four bottles of water left, sitting on the floor near the fridge, still inside the protective wrapper that was slightly dusty from dog hair. (If you come to my house and do not see animal hair, you know I have reached the end. And, my husband as well.) I ripped off the plastic overlay, grabbed the (clean) bottles and walked outside. “Hey, are you guys thirsty?” They looked at me, this skinny, bare-footed, frizzy-haired, gray-haired old lady and determined I wasn’t coming out with a broom to scream, “You kids, get offa my lawn!” One smiled and answered, “Kinda, yeah.” So I handed a water bottle to each, and apologized for being one short. The boy and girl in the front thanked me, said they didn’t mind sharing. Young love. I wished them luck and went back inside.
My sister and I were not the only people who’d seen these kids. Across the street another neighbor had been out washing his car, a weekly chore for him even in the drought. (In case the water cops are reading this, he uses a bucket and never allows water to run.) He’d seen these kids coming too and like me, ignored them as they struggled by. Finishing their swigs of water, these kids started pushing again, but this time the neighbor decided to help too. He centered himself on the back of the car and gave a mighty heave. His powerful muscles, along with the boys’ skinny ones, did the trick. The car began rolling easily up the hill. Cheers erupted.
My sister, by sensing their needs, had started a tiny chain of kindness. Had she not told me that she felt they were thirsty, I definitely wouldn’t have considered it. My neighbor also would not have helped without seeing me come out and bring water; they had already passed him by the time I got outside. There is a saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world it can cause a hurricane in another part of the world." The same can be true for these random acts of kindness. Who knows when these kids themselves may do something kind for somebody they don’t know?
In this instance, the butterfly is my sister. There are so many other butterflies out there, we should be beset by hurricanes. I’ve been the recipient of more kindnesses than I can count, and to this day, continue to be blessed by the generosity of others. From simple things, like starting an Amazon shopping trip from my blog, to cards, to gifts sent, it’s opened my eyes to the world of human generosity that somehow, I had totally missed until I got sick.
I recently read Sue Klebold’s book, A Mother’s Reckoning. You will remember her as the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. Like most of the country, I was horrified by Columbine, and then fascinated to the point where I have read every document about it. Much of what you think you know about Columbine has turned out to be bad reporting that has become folklore. (For the definitive book on Columbine, read David Cullen’s work.) Early on, as this tragic story unfolded, I, as so many others, wondered how a mother could miss signs of her child intending mass murder – and surely there were signs, right? Age, maturity, and cancer taught me better. I know deeply now that some things are inexplicable and unknowable - like the reasons for cancer, like the hidden thoughts of a suicidal teenager.
What strikes me in her book is how many others didn’t make those kinds of snap judgments that I did. Sue writes of receiving many thousands of letters with words of support. These were people who were able to give: give her the benefit of the doubt, give her support at the worst time of her life, maybe even our country’s life, even when the media was attacking her and we were all afraid for our children.
People like my sister, people like all who have reached out to me in one way or another, to try to comfort and help, are links in this chain of kindness. You are the wings of the butterfly, spreading the breeze of love through the world. It is the obligation of the rest of us, whose first nature may not be to reach out, to learn pass along the gifts of understanding and kindness we’ve been given, and to let the chain become unbroken. It may start with a bottle of water and a nudge, but that’s a good enough start.
I challenge those of you reading this – as I challenge myself – to do a kind thing for somebody else this week. And notice when somebody is kind to you - when somebody allows you to squeeze in on a busy street, when you drop something and somebody picks it up for you. All of these small random acts of kindness truly do have an impact on the experience and lives of others. Report back here what you did, what was done for you, if you like.