Surround yourself with kindness

As we were driving home from the gym yesterday, the school crossing guard gave Kim and me a big wave and a smile. She stands in at the edge of the grass strip that separates northbound Coventry from southbound Coventry and waves at everyone every morning as she helps kids get to school safely and every afternoon when she helps them get home.

We’ve actually never met her. She started after Elena died and so we’ve never spoken to her or learned her name and yet every day we exchange a wave and a smile. She does that to everyone who drives by. It’s a great thing for a crossing guard to do—it makes drivers more aware of her presence. It makes us approach her intersection differently.

It also makes me feel good. I like the friendly hopeful gesture of someone who waves and smiles to all who pass by. It’s a silent “have a nice day” from a stranger. I never get tired of exchanging a “have a nice day” as long as it’s delivered with feeling.

Coventry road dead ends a block later.  Kim and I look back to the median strip at the garden our neighbors planted for Jan and Elena. Susan and her son have once again taken the time to paint Elena’s name on hearts and hang them from the tree at the end of the garden. A block to the right of the crossing guard is another garden for Elena in front of her elementary school. There are hearts hanging from that tree as well.

Kindness on every corner.

Four years earlier people started coming over early in the day to sit with us and help us through. When the first knock on the door came at 7:30, Kim and I had been up for hours. We woke early the day after our daughter died not believing it was real. Not believing we wouldn’t find out that she was back to being alive. People reached through the fog and talked to us and put cups of coffee in our hands and made sure we ate and drank and did the things we needed to do. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening to us. We were observing it while living through it.

People who could come just be with us, came over. People who couldn’t come over sent us email, wrote us letters, and called us on the phone. People who couldn’t bring themselves to do either thought good thoughts. We were surrounded by kindness.

Four years.

Kim and I have the girls’ school pictures in frames on a desk in the living room. For the past four years Kim has slid Maggie’s new picture in front of her old one. Elena’s remains the same. Her first grade picture with her hair not quite right and her face just beginning to lengthen from the round face of a child to the adult she would never become.

She was making the change as a person too. She had begun to understand that the world wasn’t always fair but she got indignant if people didn’t appreciate the goodness in her intent and she was devastated when people where mean to each other. She was truly bothered if Kim and I ever argued in front of her and she was sensitive to how people talked to her.

Kim and I look at how much Maggie has changed in the last four years and we wonder what would have changed and what would have stayed the same about Elena. We’ve always seen both sides of the sensitivity aspect. On the one hand, she probably would be better equipped to take on the world if she toughened up and on the other hand why can’t someone stay sweet and trusting.

This is how Conan O’Brien ended his farewell monologue on the Tonight Show. “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Work hard. Be kind.

We try, but boy Conan wasn’t kidding when he said that we wouldn’t get what we thought we would. It’s been a challenge to continue to work hard and be kind in the face of Elena’s death. It would be so easy to say “why bother” but that would be missing the point of the way she led her short life and the cocoon of kindness we find ourselves inside of.

I think I’ve managed to maintain my inner six year old. I love to work hard on cool projects. I don’t mind being corrected or refocused. I do mind when people don’t value me or are mean. I know. It’s childish. I left a job last week because one partner valued process over people and the other one was unapologetically mean.

I don’t think you can change other people, but I know that other people change me. I take on the characteristics of the people who surround me. In college I roomed with a guy who was sarcastic and mean to those around him. I didn’t notice it until my father and sister visited and pointed out that I was becoming a lot like him.

So who would Elena have become? I don’t know. It would have depended somewhat on the people who surrounded her. And then there would have been the teen years to enter and exit. I think I would add to Conan’s advice.

Work hard. Be kind. Surround yourself with people who support you, challenge you, and are kind to you.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm  Comments (4)