A woman on my Facebook page announced her intention to live a more spiritual life in the coming year. The objective was noble, and I wondered how she intended to go about it. For me, spirituality is the daily practice of random acts of kindness. To illustrate, I offer an experience from a few years ago.
My mother lived to be 104. Every Friday, until she reached 101, my habit was to drive her to one of several nearby restaurants as a respite from the bland fare her assisted living facility provided. Indian curries and Eastern fare tickled her palate most.
One December day, we were headed to a restaurant that served the best plates of hummus, kabobs, and falafel in the city. Whether my stomach rumbled in anticipation or the sound I heard came from a sky blackened with clouds I didn’t know, but doubtless a storm was brewing.
The mystery was settled as we neared our destination. Without warning, a downpour splattered across my windshield. I could barely see, yet the sound of sloshing beneath the car’s tires led me to know the streets were becoming rivers. On the pavement, people lowered their umbrellas to eye level, a defense against the rain that left them blind to oncoming traffic.
“Sorry,” I muttered to those caught in the wake of my car’s waves. My courtesy was futile, I knew, but one born of habit.
As traffic was light, I found a parking spot near the restaurant, though it was on the opposite side of the street. Unfortunately, the rain had already submerged the asphalt, making the crossing look treacherous. Taking hold of my mother’s arm as a precaution when she exited the car, I guided her toward the crosswalk. At the curb, the water was high enough to cover the tops of our shoes.
Seeing no option, I nudged my parent forward, but, objecting to my haste, she wrenched her arm from me. “You’re going to make me fall,” she complained. Then, gripping her walker to steady herself, she stepped into the traffic without noticing the stoplight had turned against her. Fortunately, the sharp-eyed driver about to make a right turn spotted her and slammed on his brakes.
“Thank you,” I mouthed as we passed in front of him. He shrugged back at me as if to say, “I have an elderly mother, too.”
A blast of perfumed air greeted my parent and me once we entered the restaurant. I heard another rumble, but this time I knew it came from me.
A waiter of olive complexion hurried forward, his hands clasping menus. Little wonder we caught his eye because, though it was noon, the room was empty. Mother and I followed the young man to a table beside a bay window set for four. Doubtless, he was using us to advertise that the eatery was open. Nevermind. I was glad for the extra space and draped our coats over the backs of the empty chairs beside us, hoping that by the end of our meal, they would have dried to a tolerable dampness.
For nearly an hour, I devoted myself to a buffet comprised of several delights, one that concluded with wedges of baklava and thick coffee. By then, a few customers had staggered in, their garments as bedraggled as airport windsocks. Swallowing my anxiety along with my coffee, I dared to hope for a sliver of sunlight.
Fate was not on my side, however. Having paid the bill and rising to assist my mother with her coat, I admit, I dallied, checking to see that each of her buttons was buttoned, then checking again. With no further reason to delay, I headed for the exit with my parent in tow.
Opening the door wide enough to accommodate her walker, I exposed myself to a gust of wind. It was violent enough to blow the hood of my coat from my head and transform my hair into rivulets.
Wisely, my mother offered no resistance when I took hold of her arm to guide her into the storm. We proceeded with deliberation, like acrobats on a tightrope, but upon reaching the curb, we discovered our folly. The water being ankle-high, we had no option but to plunge into it. The immersion came as a shock, nonetheless, and for a moment, we struggled to keep our footing. Once achieved, we advanced, shoulder to shoulder, against the slanted rain.
The lone driver at the traffic light took pity on us, showing no impatience as the signal turned from red to green and back to red. I was grateful to him but tension never left my body until I had grounded my mother on the far pavement, the car a few paces away. I thought the worst was over, but I was wrong.
Bending to unlock the door, I heard the sound of metal bouncing off the concrete behind me. Without looking, I knew my mother had fallen. Even so, I was unprepared for the sight of her lying on her back with her extremities flailing like those of a doomed beetle.
I knelt beside her to assure myself no bones were broken. Then, I righted the walker and attempted to help her to her feet. The maneuver proved to be impossible. Her knees wouldn’t support her. Next, I tried pulling her up by her arms, using my body as a counterweight, but my 120 pounds were no match against her 170.
Scanning the street, I noted it was empty. Not even a car was paused at the stoplight. If I wanted help, I’d have to return to the restaurant.
“Stay put, Mom,” I said, as if she had a choice. Then, I gathered my coat about me and was preparing to dash across the empty thoroughfare when a man rounded the corner. He was headed in our direction.
“Sir” I called out to him, “Could you help? My mother has fallen…”
Rather than rush toward us, as I’d expected, the stranger behaved as if I’d hurled insults at him. His shoulders hunched toward his chest and he skirted the brick wall at his back with his hands splayed in front of him as if to ward off an evil spirit. His behavior was peculiar, but I was desperate and called to him again.
“Sir, my mother is 101. I can’t lift her by myself. Please, don’t leave us here.”
Whether my words or the fear in my voice made him pause, I’ll never know. But, instead of continuing to put a distance between us, the man stopped and turned in my direction, giving me time to take his measurement.
He was younger than I imagined, somewhere in his early thirties. As he wore no cap, his brown hair, wet with rain, was plastered to his skin, the strands almost touching his shoulders. The effect accentuated his narrow face, as did the pointed beard that jutted from his chin. Most peculiar were his eyes, the irises of which were so pale in hue, they seemed transparent. All in all, his haunted visage reminded me of a figure that might have been painted by El Greco.
The stains on his garment, the frayed coat cuffs, as well as the cloud of alcohol that hung about him made me regret that I had sought his attention. I backed away. To my surprise, the man followed, as if an invisible rope existed between us.
“I guess I could help.” As he spoke, the vagrant walked passed me in the direction of my mother. His arms he extended toward her and she, in turn, with trusting eyes, took hold of both his hands. A single yank and he lifted to her feet as if she were no more than foam.
I clapped, despite my gloved hands, happy to see him ease my parent into the front seat of the car then fasten her seatbelt as if she were someone dear to him.
”I’m grateful to you,” I said, though the man kept his back to me and hurried away without a response. Certain he’d heard me, I wondered if some other gesture was necessary. My fingers fell to the clasp of my purse as I thought about offering him money. No doubt, he could use it. Nonetheless, I hesitated.
Had this stranger been wearing a bespoke coat and Ferragamo shoes, an offer of remuneration would have given offense. For some reason, I felt the same way about the man moving into the distance. Already, I noted a change in his demeanor. His shoulder had squared, and his steps were sprightly…near to a jig I’d never mistake this person for the one scuttling along the wall minutes before.
Had his act of kindness restored his dignity? Did he, even for a moment, catch a glimpse of himself as a man who could be of use?
Somewhere in this world, that man still exists, or others like him—humans who, despite their adversities, are capable of unselfish acts, large and small. On a rainy day years ago, a stranger touched me with his insight. Spirituality isn’t a goal we work toward. It’s a gift we already possess.