The Kindness of Strangers and the Little Red Flyer Tricycle

by Renee Skudra

On a difficult day, albeit a resplendently beautiful fall one, with autumn colors shooting their vibrant and riotous tones into the world, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair.  It was the year that I couldn’t afford to buy anything, let alone a birthday card for my three-year-old son.  The landlord had raised our rent $500.00/month, my Toyota had gotten smashed in a cryptic hit-and-run by an elderly woman with a beehive hairdo, the bathroom sink was stopped up once again,  and my favorite cousin had stopped talking to me for reasons unknown.  I suddenly thought about comic Robin Williams’ comment that “everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.  Be kind.  Always.”   Not even kind to myself I was part of that metric with financial woes that grew asymptotically in an ever-expanding calculus of despair.  Recalling my therapist’s advice to “ask for help if you need it, don’t delay” I picked up my phone and called her, and asked if she had a solution to obviate the tidal wave of grief and anxiety that seemed unnavigable.

The advice that she gave me was literally heart-stopping.  “Stop focusing on yourself and raise others up.  Be that rising tide that lifts all boats and stop thinking constantly about how you’re sinking yourself!”  I suddenly felt ashamed of the pity party I was so adept at throwing myself.  As serendipity would have it, I had been reading one of my favorite authors – the Victorian novelist Henry James – and was almost finished with his magnum opus “The Ambassadors”, despite interminable interruptions from complaining family members, the Medicare Supplement people who phoned three times every day, the dog who insisted emphatically on walking every hour and two successive power outages.   There on a bookmark in that tome was something I had written weeks ago that James had said: “Three things in human life are important.  The first is to be kind,. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”   Shifting the focus from myself to others was a veritable and critical epiphany.

There is a saying that “when the student is ready a teacher appears.”  I don’t know who said that but the very next day a stranger came into my life with a lesson that needed learning.  His name was Ron Engel and I had met him at some event which featured a toney free lunch.  Being hungry, and thinking of our pretty bare cupboard and refrigerator, I piled my plate high with hummus, chicken kebabs and grilled vegetables.    After making our acquaintance Ron insisted on buying me some roses at the event and I laughingly said to him “I’m a single parent, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  He knew Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” and laughed out loud.    When he asked when my son’s birthday was I mentioned it was actually that week and he said “does he have a tricycle?”  I was too embarrassed to tell him that I couldn’t afford things like that for the moment, while stuffing the remainder of our lunches in a paper home for dinner later that night.

I will never know how Mr. Engel found out where we lived.  Since “Engel” is the German word for angel and derives from the Greek “angelus” meaning messenger,  perhaps he simply was one of those celestial guys who looks out for other’s well-being.  The following day after we returned from the local food pantry the FedEx people knocked on my front door and left a mysterious delivery against it.   By my doorstep was a gleaming brand-new children’s red flyer tricycle wrapped in huge red ribbons with the words “Happy birthday Nils!  your friend, Ron.”   In that moment serendipity and the miraculous merged as I instantaneously understood Jean Jacques Rousseau’s observation  “what wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness”.  The arrival of the bicycle carried the message to do good, with an open heart and an unbridled will.

I spent the next twenty-four hours doing things for others.  The minute I started to freely and unconditionally do that the architectonics of my life radically changed.  Wonderful things happen when you initiate acts of kindness—they are magnifiers for other events. An act of kindness sends out proverbial ripples which continue to multiply.  Or, as Amelia Earhart once opined, “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”  The funny thing about spreading kindness was, at the self-same time, my depression dissipated and, to borrow a phrase, an incredible lightness of being took place. I never saw Ron Engel again but his act of kindness forever changed the trajectory of my life.




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