I was just out of college, only three days into a graduate year in England, and I was dragging a heavy backpack and suitcase through the London Underground. I was also crying uncontrollably. As I struggled to get the suitcase up another flight of steps, I was struggling to understand how my life had fallen apart.
The day before, my uncle had informed me that I was never to speak to him, his wife, or my two cousins again. Earlier, I had made a silly, joking remark. It was never meant to hurt my aunt’s feelings, but it did. I spent the evening in an ugly blue telephone booth, weeping as I spoke to a family friend who lived in England.
The most foolish part was that I did not immediately call my parents. As a 22-year-old who had been raised to respect and trust adults, I believed my aunt and uncle when they said I’d ruined the relationship between themselves and my family. Today, as a 38-year-old, I know this was ridiculous. Their reaction was all out of proportion. But at the time, it was as if I had razed everything my family had built.
When I left the phone booth, I went back to a silent house with three closed bedroom doors. I did not sleep. In the morning, I heard everyone get up and leave for work and school; no one knocked on my door. When it was quiet, I wrote a note of apology and left it in my uncle’s bedroom. I dragged my bags the mile to the train station. When I got into London, I had to take the Tube to the Angel underground station to get to my family friend’s house.
I was familiar with the Tube, but at the time, it was a tube of endless white tiles. I was exhausted. Coming to England seemed like a bad decision. Worst of all, no elevators were working. Crying yet again, I tried to lift my suitcase up the stairs.
Suddenly in my slog there were hands. No one said anything, but each time I faced another set of steps, a hand would grip the suitcase handle and lift it. At the top of the steps, the hand would let go, and I’d pull the suitcase to the next set. And just as I was about to struggle again, another hand would materialize.
It happened several times. I never looked up, because I could not stop crying. I do remember thinking through the haze of grief that each hand looked different, that many different people helped me, without asking or saying anything. They just helped, right up to the top of the last flight of stairs that exited the station. I couldn’t look up. I wasn’t able to say thank you.
I went on to have an amazing year studying in England, and I made some friendships that continue to sustain me. But that was the last time I saw or spoke to any of those four family members. Yet when I think about that terrible loss in 1998, I remember those strangers’ hands. They were there when I needed them, and even now, they pull me through the sadness of that memory. I think of them as I ride the Metro in DC today, and I watch the commuters and tourists surge by, just in case someone needs a hand.
Copyright © 2010 by Hilary Parkinson. Quest for Kindness (July 22, 2010), aliciabessette.com.