Thank You, Kind Stranger

I found it sitting by my desk, a bright gift bag with crisp white tissue paper.  A belated baby shower gift, I assumed.  So I peeked in the bag and searched for a card or a tag or any sort of identification.  There was none to be found.  I took out the tissue paper and found a soft, cuddly, floppy-eared bunny.  Next to the bunny was a wooden fire truck, with removable ladders and two wooden firefighters.  I smiled.  These gifts were more than perfect.

Thank you, kind stranger.

As A. grew up she grew attached to these toys, especially the fire truck.  The simple wooden pieces entertained her for hours and got her through the arduous days of teething.  She would chew and chew on the wood and it would bring her sweet relief, which also brought me sweet relief when my fraying nerves couldn’t handle much more.

Thank you, kind stranger.

It bugged me for a long time after I received the mysterious, anonymous gift.  It bugged me that I had no idea who it was from.  I wanted to write a thank you.  I was worried that I had lost a friend or disappointed a church member because I never thanked them properly.

But over time I learned something from all of this. I learned to see the mystery as a gift.  It was a beautiful reminder that life is full of kind strangers who help us carry on when all we’d like to do is quit.  

These kind strangers weave a tapestry of strength that help us walk tall and walk boldly and walk hopefully, one step at a time.  Life is full of them.  Parenting is impossible without them.  And faith is built upon them.

I’m starting to believe that troubles are more troublesome when we ignore this holy tapestry.  Troubles are heavier when we don’t see the kind strangers offering encouragement and sustenance when we need it.  Troubles define us when we forget to be the kind stranger that can make a lasting difference in another’s life.

There was a bright spring morning when baby M. was about 5 weeks old, and A. was two and half.  The nights were long and sleepless, and the days were full and exhausting.  It was all harder than I expected.  The baby was having trouble nursing and big sister was doing her best to adjust, but it was hard.  Day after day saw lots of tantrums and tears, my own included.

To give my eldest a special treat on that spring morning, I loaded the girls into the car and headed to a local park.  I hoped this was the beginning of a fresh start, a calming down, a settling in.  But as soon as we pulled into the parking lot big sister A. started crying.  For no reason at all.  And then as we trudged to the playground, A. crying the whole way, baby M. started wailing that horrifying newborn cry that makes you wonder how such a little thing can make such a big noise.  Both girls were inconsolable.  It was awful.

So I sat down with my wailing kids on a bench beside the park and I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, holding back the tears that wanted to spill down my cheeks.  I knew if I started it would be really hard to stop.

When I opened my eyes a mother was walking by.  She had two kids, a little older than mine.  She saw me and stopped.  Her eyes filled with tears.  And then she smiled.  A knowing smile, a comforting smile, a hopeful smile.  “I remember how hard those days were.  Gosh, look how silly I am, crying with you,” she said as she wiped her cheek.  “I promise you: it does get better.  You are doing a good job.”   And then she talked my oldest out of her tantrum and disappeared.  Back to heaven, I assumed, because she was probably an angel sent by God.

Except she wasn’t.  She was real flesh and blood.  She saw my humanness, my frailty, my exhaustion, and she recognized it in herself.  So she held out her metaphorical hand and pulled me up and gave me the graceful strength to keep going.

I’ve thought about her often.  I never got to say thank you.  But her words echo in my heart whenever parenting or life gets tough.  Her “It does get better.  You are doing a good job.” helps me say to myself, “It will get better.  I am doing my best, and that is something to be proud of.”

Thank you, kind stranger.

If we could look back on our life and identify all of the kind strangers that have offered a word, a smile, a joke, a pat on the back in the moments we needed it most – I bet we’d see a breathtaking tapestry of connectedness.  Of people leaning on people, who encourage other people, who laugh with other people, who help other people stand or walk or crawl to where they need to go.  It turns out we are all connected, you and I, in this holy tapestry of humanity.  And God is the master weaver, drawing us closer together and inviting us to know the gift of love and wholeness and hope through each other, especially the kind strangers.  

So to the grandmotherly woman at the grocery store who made my cranky daughter laugh when I was at my wit’s end: Thank you, kind stranger.

To the man who offered to take my trash at Panera when I was alone with my kids and flustered because the baby wanted to do anything but stay in her high chair…you said you have two kids and know how much it helps to have extra hands: Thank you, kind stranger.

I know I can’t repay you.  So instead I will pass it on.  I will weave my life into this breathtaking tapestry of connectedness with simple acts of kindness.  I will remind others that no matter how it feels, they are never alone.

I was at the park the other day with my kids.  I saw a mom holding a squirmy, fussy infant while trying to convince her two year old to play nicely with other kids in the sandbox.  I smiled at her and struck up a conversation.  We swapped notes on the challenges of parenting young children, reflux and nursing woes and sleepless nights.  In a flash of inspiration I remembered that mother in the park only a year before who had cried my tears for me and promised it gets better.

Then I looked at the mother standing before me and I saw my reflection in her weary face.  With tears in my eyes I said, “It really does get better.  Hang in there.  You are doing a good job.”  And then I walked away, never to see her again.

I was looking through the toy box and came across that floppy-eared bunny, and I realized with a sinking heart that my kids are now too old for it.  I must pass it on, I thought.  But I want it to be anonymous.  I want it to carry on the lesson that it spoke into my life: God uses kind strangers to remind us that there is goodness in the heart of humanity.  

God uses kind strangers to invite us into the comforting, life-giving tapestry of connectedness.  And this is so, so, so very important.  

Because if we are all connected, then we are all in this together.  And if we are all in this together, then we need to keep picking each other up, keep cheering each other on, keep offering each other a helping hand.  Kind strangers make more than the world go round, they make the world more safe and whole and hopeful.

So if ever a cuddly, floppy-eared bunny shows up on your doorstep, I hope it inspires you to smile and say, Thank you, kind stranger.

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