The Kindness of Strangers



Eight and a half years ago my mother died in a rehab facility in Toronto. She was recovering from a broken hip and as with many in her predicament had passed away shortly after, perhaps because of a weak heart, or the shock to her ninety-one year old body.

I had come into Toronto to spend the day with her, sharing photos of my dog with her, laughing, watching old movies, telling her she looked like Doris Day, her insisting I see Billy Elliot since I was in Toronto. That levity collapsed after her first physio session, as I rubbed her leg to give some comfort to the intense pain. But death was definitely not on our minds. That night, the night she died, I was staying at a nearby friend’s house.

I remember the early morning phone call, and running to the rehab, passing laughing kids on their way to school, dodging street cars and traffic, choking back tears with a sense of nightmarish disbelief. My legs numb.

I arrived gasping, and out of breath as I entered her room, where, behind a curtain and still in bed, her quiet body lay as if asleep. I had a sense of peace and light and incredible calm. The head nurse told me that I could spend some time with her, until they had to move her.

Over those next few hours, I sat, head bowed, most of the time crying and sometimes just quietly sitting, empty, sad and tired. Nurses looked in on me, and a couple who had attended on my mother over the previous days asked if they could come into the curtained off area to spend time with me, where they stood at the end of the bed with their heads down, hands clasped, occasionally with a kind comment, “your mother was a classy lady,” said one, which I thought was very observant and right on. We smiled at that. Their company was kind, nonintrusive and much appreciated. They may have suffered their own losses, I thought, obviously being far away from their land of birth.

When my mother’s body was moved to the facility morgue to await transport back to Ottawa, I sat with my brother-in-law for many more hours.

In the late afternoon I finally left for my train back home, assured that she would be moved.

Union station was a sea of rush-hour commuters and I was with the flow in one moment and against it the next. I was confused, light headed and relieved that I would soon be with my own family.

When I got to my seat, the last vacant one in the car, I was sitting, elbows to ribs, beside, across from, and facing businessmen. My eyes were raw, I was soaked with sweat, from the rush to get to the right train.

It was then I felt the panic; I could not endure two hours of trying not to cry while stone faced suits looked on. I rose, climbed across my seatmate’s lap and brief case and found a porter. She told me to talk to the head porter on the platform, which I did. “My mother just died,” I said. I remember my heart pounding and lack of breath. “I can’t sit there. It’s too crowded. I’ll pay extra for first class (not sure how). I can’t sit there.”

The woman took my hand and guided me to the first-class car where many seats were vacant, the lighting dim, and a quiet cool calm prevailed unlike the crowded car I had come from. She showed me to a seat by the window with only a few seated nearby and told me to eat and drink and not to worry about it. But the most I could do during that ride, was look out the window and cry and sniff as quietly as possible.

When we got to my stop, the same porter was on the platform helping people find their car. I approached her, her arms opened and I received a huge generous hard hug. She told me to take care of myself. We might have said more but people were waiting, the train was about to leave. She had saved my short life on that train ride.

I have told this story about the kind porter to my friends many times.

On my most recent train trip into Toronto for dinner with my brother and sister, when I got my train home I thought I recognized that same porter, moving along the aisle from car to car. As fate or luck would have it my seat was the second row from the end of the car, and as we picked up speed and headed east, I saw she was seated behind me, going through her paperwork. It was her.

I could have distracted myself with futile social media check-ins and email follow-ups, but I decided to say something. I spoke through the crack between the seats. “Excuse me, did you work for VIA eight years ago?”

“I’ve worked for them for twenty five years.”

“Eight years ago my mother died and you were so kind to me, you found me a seat in first class and I’ll never forget that. I have told so many people how much it meant to me.”

From where I sat I can say that it seemed she melted. Her eyes widened and then softened. She said it is always nice to hear that you have made some difference. She thanked me again. She told me her father had died since then and then asked me if I was okay. It’s strange how the unimaginable becomes something that is such a part of us. Both of us, now, seemed to share an understanding.

I was so glad I hadn’t let that moment slip by. It had been my turn to return a kindness, however small. When I stepped down from the train, we hugged again. I felt like I had completed a circle or opened a door, one or the other.

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