Random act of kindness

New York City on a sweltering spring Sunday afternoon is always an adventure. Heck, any day in NYC is an adventure. Not being a regular in The City, it’s a challenge to overlook the rude drivers, pot-hole riddled streets, streams of trash along the byway leading to the Lincoln Tunnel and the crowded streets where people don’t make eye contact and are focused only on their destination, never mind the people in their way. That said, a series of events happened today that gave me pause and reasons to smile.

A major hurdle in being unemployed for the first time in decades is having to explain my situation to friends and family. I don’t like talking about myself; I’m more into hearing about other people’s lives. Arriving at a Central Park South restaurant to celebrate a relative’s birthday, my well-meaning sister-in-law very brightly focused on the communication consulting projects I’m just finishing up. This is the first time I’ve seen most of this side of the family since all this happened. So, to look in her caring eyes and realize I had to again explain my situation, was a bit much for me at the moment. I had to take a second. So, I battled the restaurant crowd and headed to the sidewalk to breathe. Recovering quickly with my husband’s encouragement, I enjoyed a pleasant brunch, albeit in a packed, noisy restaurant with few ways to have a conversation. A simple pleasure of playing tic-tac-toe with nephew, Noah brightened my mood. You can learn much from the young ones. They have no sense of pain lasting more than 25 seconds and the simplest thing, such as tic-tac-toe and showing off HIS way of spelling DINER (meaning dinner) in games of Hang-Man is what learning about life really means.

The random-act-of-kindness moment began when we were listening to 1010WINS radio and Mayor Bloomberg’s weekly address as we drove toward the Lincoln Tunnel. He talked about stepping up in the community and serving; he mentioned going beyond the random act of kindness. Later in the afternoon as Doug and I walked toward our car on the Upper East Side, I glanced toward an elderly woman walking in the same direction we were. She was asking a young woman walking the other way if she could PLEASE walk her to her apartment building on 90th and Lexington, about a block away. Doug and I continued past, but we commented how it was odd this woman was asking for help. Doug thought she needed to walk to 98th street, which would be a good 10 blocks or so. When I told him I thought she said 90th Street, he did an about-face. The next thing I saw, was Doug taking the short, white-haired woman’s arm. Dressed in a light green top with green slacks, she held on to her shopping cart with her right hand as her house keys dangled from the handle; her left arm slid into Doug’s and her pink-slippered feet shuffled more easily on the sidewalk. She expressed how she had given her professional life to nursing, for not much money. She said how shocked she was that it’s so difficult to find a random stranger who will help her just walk a little ways. Her cart would get caught up on the sidewalk seams; she managed to move the wheels over each bump. She told me she needed that cart to lean on. She needed my husband on the other side.The woman looked up so appreciatively and with pride as Doug told her he is a Scoutmaster. She said she hoped the young men my husband works with learn from his example. She talked about how she was homeless for a time after a work crane collapsed on her apartment building at 51st and 2nd Ave. I do believe she also wanted someone to talk to if only for a few minutes. We listened. Doug’s random act of kindness took fewer than 10 minutes. We left her safely at her building door and wondered how many people she’d asked for help before Doug stepped up.

The other event that made me smile with appreciation, happened as we arrived home. The cell phone rang; Wendy, whose birthday we celebrated in NYC, was calling to thank us again for taking the trip to spend a little time with her. Doug handed me the phone. Let me say up front, Wendy and I haven’t talked that much through the years. But today, she lifted my spirits at a time when I haven’t felt that high on myself. She offered support and encouragement and stressed my search for “what’s next” could take months. She advised me NOT to settle for something I don’t really want. Wendy said she was in the same place at another time in her life and she turned out better for it. It’s NOT that I haven’t heard these pieces of advise or known these things, but to hear advice from a person I had not been particularly close with, really warmed my heart. Who knew she cared? I’m finding that people I think care, may not; others are coming out of the woodwork.

Today’s lessons (and there are lessons every day): random acts of kindness are easier to give than you think; expect the unexpected when the chips are down.

Adam went on his first date. Our 14-year old son, seemingly out of no where, deadpanned the other night,” I want to go to the movies with a friend Saturday night.” I deadpanned back at him, “What’s her name.”
While my husband videotaped what he and my son expected would be a freaked-out reaction, Adam stepped away from the dinner table. It was then I looked at my husband with that, “Oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-he’s-growing-up-so-fast” look. The shock settled into a warm, fuzzy emotion in realizing this day would come. I just didn’t believe Adam was in a place where a “date” was in the picture. What was even more shocking was Adam told us that night he had been “dating” the girl for (exactly) 16 days. He said they decided April 1st, they were “going out.”
Thinking back, I don’t know how much I told my parents about my early “dating” exploits. My husband and are happy Adam apparently felt comfortable telling us about his girlfriend. After meeting the young lady, I remarked to my husband that it seems we are raising him OK. (Big sigh, there.) We couldn’t help but think ahead to the inevitable “heartbreak.” To this day, I remember when my 6th grade boyfriend (I was mature for my age) dumped me. I honestly don’t remember the actually dumping, just the hysteria from me that followed and the big “ta-doo” is ingrained in my mind forever. After being surrounded by friends during recess that day, I was taken to Miss Cusack’s office at Rhawnhurst Elementary where I cried some more. Some how I got past Bobby and the dumping incident. There were many other times when I was the dumper and the dumpee, but somehow, when this happens to my son it’ll be different. I’m guessing a text message will be involved from one side or the other. But what will be the same will be tears.
For now, realizing our only child is on yet again, another journey I sit back and enjoy and learn from the experience. He’ll be 15 years old soon and as with any birthday comes another set of growing pains. We keep saying we’ll only have Adam around full time for a short while longer. Embracing each step along the way is a joy to behold in this thing we call parenthood.

Cancer Sucks! Now that I have your attention… Our friend Jenny has slapped me upside my head for a second time since I have known her. This time, in with her inspiring attitude of hope and healing with ovarian cancer. The “Cancer Sucks” button is pinned to the bag she takes to the doctor. The odds are not good and she and Todd have known that for going on three years. She openly talks about death and during our visit to Colorado, she joked about telling Todd her ashes will be in an urn and put in the closet with her old dogs who have gone to the rainbow in the sky. She also told Todd she wants some ashes sprinkled all the places they have traveled to (and they’ve been to a LOT of places). Beyond that reality, Jenny lives every day doing exactly what she wants to do. We had a wonderful visit with them over spring break, splitting the time staying in their home in Littleton and at Breckenridge. My husband, Doug, Todd and their other friend Ron grew up together in West Chester County, NY. Life changes took Todd and Jenny and Ron, Iris and their two boys to Colorado at separate times. The two families live about 30 minutes apart. After I lost my job in January, one of the first things I mentioned was we should cancel the Colorado trip. But Doug convinced me the tickets had been bought and paid for weeks earlier and the expense of a car rental wasn’t too terrible. (Funny note: I got to use my AARP discount getting the rental down to $182 for six days!) Seeing Todd and Jenny has been high on our list since her diagnosis before Christmas 2006. We had just seen them in July that year. Jenny was a huge inspiration for me in latching on to Weight Watchers and being successful. Jenny has always been the picture of health since I’ve known her: healthy choices in the kitchen and her zest for an active lifestyle from skiing and mountain biking to turbo kickboxing class she takes at her local gym. I have to be honest. Seeing Jenny for the first time since 2006 was a shock. Gone was her blond hair; left behind a light covering of gray hair Jenny says was thinning once again following the start of another concoction of chemotherapy drugs. Her skin looked tired and drawn. But once I got past those superficial things, in seconds I could see her bouncing, vivid, blue eyes, her fit body and that booming, higher-pitched voice welcoming us to their home. (I should also note, she didn’t hear the doorbell because she was relaxing in the hot tub on their deck that has a picturesque view of the Continental Divide and Pike’s Peak in the distance.) Her “girls” as Jenny calls the dogs, Sheila and Mildred were barking away as we arrived in their driveway. I couldn’t help but wonder during our visit whether I would see Jenny again. I wanted to soak up all I could of her without being too intrusive. I have only known her through Doug since we were married and have only seen Jenny and the others a handful of times. But these are friends who just drink everyone in. Jenny and Todd seem to love entertaining and having people around. That hasn’t changed even in this crisis. One thing is clear: Jenny is doing exactly what she wants to do at any given time. If she’s tired, she goes to bed; if she wants to ski, she skis. They even bought a new home in Breckenridge, mainly because Jenny had always loved this house. It is indeed, beautiful and comfortable. They went to Hawaii in March to relax and golf. While we were visiting, Todd was looking into a trip to Spain. There’s no time like the present and as Jenny says, “Life is short.”I get a terrible feeling in me as I write that. Part of it is how life is so fragile for all of us. We fret and worry over the simplest things, not the least of which is losing a job. Sure my professional life has changed, but we’re not starving, my husband works hard every day, I seem to be very busy, at least at the moment, on some freelance projects earning me some money along with unemployment. We’re really fine. I walked in to Jenny’s office the morning we left to get a pencil. I wanted also to drink up the “vibe” Jenny seems to send as she wages this fight against the cancer that sucks. From the lounge chair where her “cancer sucks” bag sits to the bookshelf lined with hope and healing books mixed in with Michael Crichton and Jane Austen books, there is a sense of peace. Jenny remains optimistic. I commented to her how it seemed Ron and Iris’s oldest son, Jake really seems to like her. She told a story of Jake asking whether she was going to die. Jenny explained, yes, she would be dying at some point, but she was going to try her darndest not to die anytime soon. Jenny also told us about all of the doctor visits, the poking, the prodding, the drugs, the tests, tumor marking, stomach-draining. She said she had no idea how people can hold down a full time job and fight cancer at the same time. This IS her full time job. Battling something deep within her, a demon that attacked without warning. We worry about Todd. Both of them are easygoing, but Todd has given up some of his life to focus completely on Jenny. “Whatever Jenny wants, Jenny gets,” is his mantra. They have their three dogs and two cats, his business, two homes and great family and friend support. As we left to travel home, I hugged both of them, whispering to Todd, “Take care of YOU.” This story deserves a happy ending. Jenny has never gotten to remission. There will be more hope and hopefully, much more healing to come. Their spacious kitchen is lined with most, if not all, of the cards of support Jenny has received over these past months. Jenny says it makes her feel good to see that support every single day and feel the love so many people have for Jenny and Todd. Any loss in life sucks..but not as much as cancer. Jenny’s battle has her at a place where she feels good and strong now. Beat that sucker, Jenny. We’re all on the sidelines cheering.

It’s been more than two months since I was on the radio and I am still receiving emails from listeners either wondering where I’ve been or expressing disappointment that I am no longer at my former radio station. I have written back to each one of them with gratitude. I spent two days this week on a trip to Florida to do some freelance work for Philadelphia Academies Inc. which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The organization provides specialized career training and mentorship at dozens of high schools across Philadelphia. The group, run by CEO Lisa Nutter, wife of Mayor Michael Nutter, was co-founded by Lee Everett, a retired CEO of what is now PECO (Philadelphia Electric, back in the day). I bring this venture up because as with every person I’ve interviewed through the years, I learn something. 83 year-old Lee Everett talked about the pride he and his colleagues had in creating Philadelphia Academies. He said the Academy was “a dream no one dared to have,” during a time of race riots and division in the city schools and in society. Students hand-picked for the program because of their lack of achievement, learned a trade which became a career. They were paid; they got a summer job.The dropout rate declined; attendance soared and those students on the bubble between failing and succeeding, found they could have goals and dreams that were achievable. The program has become a model for similar programs across the nation. Find out more on their web site http://www.academiesinc.org/.
Of Philadelphia Electric, Lee Everett told me while the company had billions of dollars in equipment, most important were THE PEOPLE. He said THEY made up the company. He said they took care of their people with training, promotions and other services. I learned from Lee Everett, that the focus by companies on PEOPLE is gone today. Everett said people in companies today, are just the cost of doing business. We are all widgets; replaceable when broken and eliminated whenever something goes wrong. I have learned that your experience and years in a business often count for nothing today.
Read the headlines daily and you see job losses listed in totals. Of course, there’s no way to list every person’s story and how their lives are altered by the loss of a job, but we are survivors. I have been getting such incredibly great advice and support for so many people over these weeks, that I have no option BUT to be optimistic. My work with Philadelphia Academies will be short-term. Other opportunities around the corner. I am reaching out to organizations in my community I have always wanted to be involved with, but never had the time. That time is now and I am stepping up. The Lee Everett’s of the world may be from the past, but perhaps we have lost the lessons of the past: people count, every day. Without a friend at work, a caring colleague, a compassionate boss, we’re just a bunch of widgets who don’t give a hoot.