Sunday, December 17, 2006

The kindness of strangers.

For many weeks, Tom and Kara had collected scraps of case, enough to treat themselves and the kids to a restaurant meal -- not to celebrate, just to soothe their anxieties a little. Kara needed a bone marrow transplant, she had learned, and so the family went to a truck stop in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where the portions were huge. The two boys held a contest over who could eat more. The family laughed a lot. They talked about their hardships, and snatches of their conversation were overheard by a stranger at the bar. He was a truck driver passing through, a man who got little time with his family.

"I asked the lady for the check," Kara recalled, "and she said, 'There's no check.' She said, 'A gentleman at the bar paid your bill.' I was offended. I tried to explain to this lady that I didn't accept charity." Nothing insulted Kara more than pity. Poverty and sickness infuriated her, and as they drove home to Newport, where they lived beside a junky auto repair shop, she boiled and brooded. She had lost her long chestnut hair from chemotherapy, her teeth from lack of funds for dental care, her stamina, her gaiety. She was not about to lose her dignity as well. So she called the truck stop and demanded the name of the benefactor. He was still there, the waitress said, and she handed him the phone. Kara asked him frostily why he had paid, and he told her, "He had never heard a family discuss problems that openly," she said. "We were so close-knit, and he was a truck driver on the road a lot and just wanted to do something for us. He was touched. This man couldn't believe we could laugh at life like that."

She remembered him telling her: "I counted. Your children said they loved you twenty times."

Her anger suddenly cracked. "I broke down, and I cried."
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America 174-75 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

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