The kindness of strangers

In the last 24 hours I’ve shared hugs with two complete strangers.

Mum was very poorly, rushed to hospital in the early hours of Tuesday morning with sepsis. Shushie and I kept vigil over her embattled body, lapsing in and out of consciousness.

The only other activity in the small bay was in the far corner where another woman was recovering from serious sickness. She was surrounded at all times by daughters, sons, brothers, sisters and neighbours bearing aluminium dishes containing Pakistani food for the patient – an entire extended family.

Yesterday the Muslim chaplain came to see her and, after saying prayers, spoke to me.

Amazing how a sympathetic word unlocks tears: I cried a little and shared with him my fears for mum.

The visitors in the corner saw my tears and, after the chaplain left, came over themselves. They brought a beaker of tea, asked after mum and said they would pray for her. The oldest son insisted I was to ask for their help if there was anything at all I needed; then he gave me a bear hug.  The walls of their extended family had been redrawn to offer me a place of care and comfort.

Pay it forward

More days of hospital visiting lie ahead so at 8.30 this morning I was pulling ready meals off the shelves in Marks and Spencer, anticipating I’d have little time or energy at the end of each day.

Behind me in the queue a middle aged man with Mediterranean features held only a single bouquet of pink carnations. I invited him to go ahead of me.

“Thank you.” His cheeks flushed, then he mumbled “these are for my mum. She died three weeks ago. Carnations were something special between us.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m sure you were special to her as well.”

He started to cry and I put my hand on his shoulder while he apologised and fumbled with a hanky and told me how his mum had always come to M&S. He’d driven up from Surrey that morning, he said, and was in no hurry really because his dad had dementia and wouldn’t open the door to him until after 10.

So I went ahead after all but after paying I turned back and gave him a hug while the cashier studied her nail polish.  He held tightly onto me for a moment, then thanked me as we wished each other well.

Demolition job

These are the moments that matter in a world where politicians want to build walls and the media’s success depends on reinforcing what divides us.

More than ever it seems to me that our best chance of healing our world lies in ordinary people choosing to see what we have in common: reaching out to each other over these small but important shared experiences - across boundaries of race, culture, and even convention (because let’s face it, how many total strangers have you hugged in the supermarket queue?)

Fear, distress, hope, faith, love, empathy, confusion, vulnerability:  in opening to our human feelings and choosing to see the same in others, we are not so much stepping over the boundaries as dismantling them brick by brick.  When enough people do that there will no longer be anything there. 

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