The Turning Point…

IMG_3863
photo taken from http://www.goodreads.com

 

My homework for the writers’ workshop this week was to answer the question, “What was the turning point when you decided to Choose Grace?”  I knew the exact moment and told our instructor that I would be happy to answer the prompt she gave me. Two weeks and MANY tears later, I only scratched the surface of that question. As it turns out, there wasn’t one specific moment, but a collection of moments that took place during the time my step-father, John, went missing and then later when he was found.

Many of my friends will remember my obsession with the children’s book, Wonder, by RJ Palacio, shortly after I went through that experience. At the time, I spoke with friends near and far about our favorite characters, passages and quotes throughout the book, especially toward the end (but I won’t give those away as I still recommend this book for all ages!). What I couldn’t explain at the time was that the most moving passage for me, was the following:

Hey, is this seat taken?

I looked up, and a girl I never saw before was standing across from my table with a lunch tray full of food. She had long wavy brown hair, and wore a brown T-shirt with a purple peace sign on it.

Uh, no, I said.

She put her lunch tray on the table, plopped her backpack on the floor, and sat down across from me. She started to eat the mac and cheese on her plate…

My name is Summer, by the way. What’s yours?”

When I read these first few lines in the “The Summer Table” chapter, I started to weep.

Not just a few tears, but a real ugly cry. I wasn’t quite sure why I had had this strong of a reaction to these particular words. I certainly wasn’t a middle school student and I didn’t know anyone with a facial deformity, like the main character, August. Why, then, was I having such a strong reaction to these characters in this book?

Still sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden and anxiety-prone, I started reading Wonder just one month after my step-father’s body had been recovered off the coast of Key West. The memories that surfaced during his disappearance, the desperate search and then the recovery were brutal. All of the feelings that I had pushed away for my brother, Brian, who also went missing, who we also searched for, and then later found, resurfaced with a vengeance.

The pain of knowing that these two beautiful and gentle souls had lost hope was indescribable.

While sitting there weeping uncontrollably, I realized why the words from Wonder struck such a chord. Brian and John were just like August. While they may not have had the complex deformities that his character had, they were suffering in other ways. Brian and John’s injuries were invisible. They, just like August, felt completely isolated in their pain.

In fact, we are ALL like August at one point or another. We ALL have something.

And, we all have the capacity to be like Summer. We all have the ability to change the course of someone’s day, someone’s life, with just one simple act of kindness. Or, as I like to call it: grace.

When I really thought about Summer’s seemingly simple act during one of August’s lowest points in the story, it triggered a whole series of questions, thoughts and even more tears. From the more book-specific questions: Would I have gone to the aid of an outcast when I was a kid? Would my children be brave or decent enough to do this as well? To the more personal reflections: Did I reach out to Brian when he needed me most? Did I do enough to let him know he wasn’t alone? Could I have saved John by reaching out to him sooner? Did I miss signs that he was losing hope? To the more philosophical question: What does the world expect from me?

Losing John seventeen years after losing Brian, changed me forever. I literally shattered into a million little pieces when I figured out his location: a terrible, heart-wrenching phone call that I placed in the middle of the night to the Monroe County Coroner’s Office provided the answer I prayed so hard not to hear.

I am different now and I look at others differently now too. It’s almost as if I am looking through a camera with a “suffering” lens. There are so many people who are suffering…so many of us who are fighting every single day to escape the pain.

The whole scenario with this fictional character, Summer, and her ability to Choose Kind, to help someone she viewed as suffering, or as isolated, just for the sake of being nice or helping another person, spurred me on my mission even more.

When I started reading the book, it had only been three weeks since I had made my own pledge in front of about 150 mourners at John’s funeral. I pledged that despite the most unimaginable and hopeless outcome, I had decided to “Choose Grace”.

What did that mean? What is choosing grace? As I explained in the eulogy that I wrote for John, it meant that I was going to choose to find the beauty deep within an incredibly terrible situation. I was going to live life the way John lived his life when he was well – with rose-colored glasses, a beautiful optimism, an urge to help others and a gigantic, hearty laugh. I decided that while I have a choice, I was going to choose grace.

Before all of this happened, I was not what people would describe as the PollyAnna type. I had experienced a bunch of losses and had become quite cynical over the years, but what I experienced during those weeks of John’s disappearance, search and the weeks following his loss, made me gravitate towards the other side. The bright side. There are so many stories of people who stepped up to help me find John. Every time I called someone new, I told them about who John was and explained to them our family had gone through this before with filing a missing persons’ report, searching for our loved one, holding onto hope despite the odds that were stacking up against us. There were just so many stories of people who were willing to do anything to help us – from the guy who said he would post flyers in Key West after he got off his 8-hour shift, to the sheriff who said he would hand deliver the note I wrote to the man who found John’s body. He did this after I explained that I never got to thank the person who found my brother’s body along North Avenue Beach. He understood that I couldn’t let this go again.

Despite the terrible outcome, deep sadness and the stress this put on our already fractured family, I had hope. I had hope that I could be like Summer’s character. Hope that my children would also “choose kind” when given the choice. Hope that I could help other people, even if it was just one person, from feeling alone…from losing hope.

When you are thrown into a chaotic situation, and you feel like you are spiraling out of control and losing your mind, you never know where you’ll find peace and inspiration. For me, it was during an incredibly difficult time from a special book with an important message: “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”

To answer my instructor’s question, my turning point was my breaking point.

The Grocery Store Visit and the Weekly RAK-Up

image
on autopilot (google images)

I vaguely remember the first time I heard about the grocery shopping and delivery service, Peapod. I was working full-time, really didn’t like having to shop after work or on busy weekends, and thought it would be an excellent way to help save time and money. The Peapod truck, like the UPS and FedEx trucks, was already a fixture on our street.

 

Several years later, when I had two children and was working part-time, one of my friends who was in a similar position, mentioned that she was using this service. There was a big promotion and lots of money and time to be saved. She LOVED it! It seemed like the perfect solution to my biggest conundrum at the time, which was…how can I avoid bundling up these two babies, listening to them cry and whine, and figure out how to choose (somewhat) healthy foods and save money? All I had to do with this service was “point and click” and our weekly grocery list would be delivered right to our front door. It seemed like a win-win for our family.

Later that week, when I was at my mom’s house and mentioned that I was considering this service, she responded, “Well, I can definitely see the benefits, but it’s just another way for people to stop leaving their homes and connecting.”

While I often dismissed many of my mother’s comments, this one stuck with me. That, and I never seemed organized enough to get a full grocery list together for an order, so I just continued on with my one, two or three weekly trips to the grocery store.

About five years ago, in a new town with three kids and a terrible winter that never seemed to end, I was pushing the grocery cart around the store with two screaming kids who kept begging for everything on the shelves. Money was extremely tight at the time and we had to stick to our list – there was NO negotiating and the crying and whining would not stop. I remember feeling so embarrassed about how my kids (and I!) were behaving and wanted to get out of the store as quickly as possible. Of course, all of the lines were taking forever. As I tried to negotiate my way into the shortest line, I passed a woman who was holding a scanner in one hand and pushing her shopping cart with neatly organized bags with the other. She picked up a jar of sauce, scanned it and placed it in one of her bags. I stopped her to see what she was doing. She explained that she was using the store’s scanner, which meant she could scan her items, bag her groceries as she went along, and then she avoided the lines by going to the self-checkout. She said it cut her shopping trips by at least 10-15 minutes.

I started using the scanner on our very next visit.

Not only was the shopping quicker, but I could view the prices of everything immediately and my “helpers” loved scanning the items. When the store introduced the online deli feature a year or two later, it streamlined the process even more. I was becoming a more effective, money-saving consumer. I was in and out in 25 minutes or less – it was great!

Then, one morning during one of those shopping trips, the scanner broke while I was checking out. One of the cashiers came over, voided my transaction and said I would have to take all of my groceries, which were already bagged to the “regular” line. I’m embarrassed to even admit how I annoyed I was while waiting in the long line to have the items re-scanned and re-bagged. When it was my turn, the cashier greeted me with a huge smile, apologized for the “scanner inconvenience” and asked me how my day was going. The bagger asked if I wanted her to throw away all the garbage (i.e., old receipts, legos and goldfish) that had accumulated in my recycleable bags over the years. It was nice to be helped and I realized with surprise that it was the first time that I had spoken with someone other than my family all morning. It was the quickest conversation, but I thanked her for asking how I was doing and told her that I had forgotten how nice it was to chat in the check-out line. These scanners were great for convenience, but I was slowly losing connections with others.

My mom was right.

Now, while I admit that I have not given up the scanner or the deli kiosk, I do try to interact with at least one person (either someone who works there or another customer) during each visit. This week, I made an effort to smile at others and greet them. And yes, I know I look a little crazy. However, I was pleasantly surprised that EVERY SINGLE PERSON returned my smile.

And, when I said, “Good Morning. How are you?” to a well-dressed, adorable elderly lady in one of the aisles, she looked up surprised, stopped pushing her cart, and responded with a beautiful smile, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”.

We should never forget how much we need each other.

image

#60. Wrote a letter of encouragement to a friend.

#59. Participated in several volunteer opportunities at children’s school.

#58. Bought some special treats for our pup, Jane and our hamster, Mr. Gus Whiskers.

#57. Smiled and greeted several people at Stop and Shop (RAK of the Week).

#56. Returned a random shopping cart back into the store.

This week, I tried to participate in FREE acts of kindness…it’s not that easy! Do you have any FREE RAK ideas, you’d like to share?! I’d love to hear them as I have 360 more acts to go…thank you! :o)

Uber Kindness and The Weekly RAK-Up

uber-logo

“Thank you for listening, Boss. You are a good mother…I can tell. Your kids are lucky. Thank you so much for listening.”
Today, during an early morning uber ride, I met a driver with an interesting story. Born in India, he was one of eight children, left school after the 7th grade and started working to help support his family. When he moved to the United States many years ago, he continued to work, taking odd jobs along the way.
Thirty-eight years ago, he and his wife bought a home in Rogers Park (my old ‘hood!) and started a family. They had two children – a boy and a girl. Throughout their lives, he taught them many life lessons; like how to earn and save money, that they needed to respect their parents (he gave them a tour of a juvenile detention facility to make his point), and the importance of education. His children both excelled, graduated from college and are successful in their professional endeavors. He has two grandchildren, who bring him more joy than he could even begin to describe, however, his smile told the entire story.
In three months, he turns 68-years-old and will retire from his full-time job. He will travel to India, and when he returns, he’ll go back to his part-time uber gig. He enjoys meeting people and hearing their stories.
I know this will sound like an easy or obvious act of kindness, but it’s one that I often forget about…listening. Truly listening to a person tell his story, without interruption, thinking about the next thing to say and without judgement. Because I did this, I learned many valuable life lessons, received the highest compliment and connected with someone who loves his family as much as I love mine.
We can really learn so much about each other when we really listen.
IMG_3429
#57. Listened (without interruption) to a man’s life story.
#56. Helped a woman whose carry-on was stuck in the overhead bin.
#55. Left a “kindness”note in a bathroom stall at LaGuardia.
#53. Gave a little extra tip for great service at a restaurant.
#52. Brought dinner to a friend who just had a baby.
#51. Gave chocolate to a conductor who was having a bad day.
#50. Woke up a sleeping passenger when his cell phone fell onto the floor of the train. He was SO appreciative!
#49. Put garbage can lid back on trash can (instead of walking by it).