We have a new system in the garden: we now have pretty red flags on little sticks to put in our garden plots when we are away. The flags alert fellow gardeners that our plots may need watering. When we are tending our own gardens we can easily spend a few minutes spraying our neighbor’s plants – a few minutes that make a big difference for a neighbor in need. What a relief to know the vegetables will be cared for until we are back in town.
The concept of waving a red flag when we need help is so appealing, and depends on the belief that there is a well of goodness in people, a deep quiet well of goodwill, waiting to be tapped. I truly do believe most people are happy to help if they are but asked. It doesn’t take much to water a neighbor’s plot when we are already there with the hose in our hand, but we don’t know it is necessary unless we see the flag.
In some cases we know in advance we will need help, and can put the flag out for all to see, but the goodness of people truly shines when we need help unexpectedly. The other day I took a long, meandering walk to the community garden with my 88 year old mother. I held her arm tightly while navigating the uneven sidewalks, and she took in the charming houses and beautiful spring blossoms along the way. But on the way home, one block from my house, one tiny misstep caused her to fall, in slow motion, pitching forward and breaking her right arm. One moment we were discussing what to make for dinner and the next we were surrounded by the kindness of strangers. In the blur that followed I remember a small crowd of passers-by who offered help, called my daughter for me, and comforted us. Suddenly I heard “Do you need a doctor?” and our band of helpers cried in unison, “Yes!” Riding by on her bike with her small son in tow, a young woman who turned out to be the head of Geriatric Medicine at a large medical practice pulled over to tend to my mom, still laying on the ground. Then there were the EMTs Ron and Matt, and firemen and policemen, one of whom yelled at some irate motorists to “grow up and be civil to one another – there is a medical emergency going on here!”
While there is no denying the physical pain my mom is now enduring, my whole family remains a bit in awe of the kindness we encountered throughout the whole process of arranging her care and getting her home to California. Even the geriatric doctor who stopped to help continued to check in with us over the next few weeks. I lost track of the people we need to thank and I wouldn’t even know how to reach them. I hope somehow they can feel our gratitude.
A few days later, my daughter and I wandered into Harvard Square right after graduation ceremonies had let out. While eating ice cream cones on a crowded sidewalk we spotted a boy of about 10 eyeing our ice cream, and realized he was conspicuously alone amongst the revelers. He approached us and my daughter was the first to understand the situation: this young man was autistic, he was lost and he wanted ice cream. We kept an eye on him as he dove into the packed J.P. Licks ice cream shop; we alerted the people working there, found a policeman who got on his radio, and within minutes saw his terrified aunt, accompanied by another policeman, running towards us. As she arrived, he was being kindly handed a dish of chocolate ice cream, surrounded by a line full of concerned fellow customers. Relieved, we carried on our way, thinking of all those people who had suddenly appeared when my mom fell, and I saluted them. Perhaps paying it forward is the only way to repay such a debt.
Preparing to travel back to California the next week to help care for my mom, I had one more red flag to fly, this time to my husband. In the flurry of activity since the accident I hadn’t been able to plant the seed potatoes I had bought for the garden. They were sprouting and long overdue for planting. They had to get into the ground soon if we ever hoped to harvest them. As I waited to board my flight, not more than an hour after my husband left me at the airport, he sent me a text message. My phone lit up with pictures of the beautiful planting bags filled with dirt, seed potatoes nestled inside, watered and ready to grow, and some zucchini plants newly planted, for good measure.
A well of goodness, deeds of kindness: they are everywhere I look.