The Kindness of Strangers
Sara E. Quay
On October 28, 2000, I received a phone call from a stranger who told me that my father, living three thousand miles away in Los Angeles, had just collapsed from a heart attack. I did not know who the caller was or how he knew my father. His call was the first of many calls, from many strangers, that would confirm that my father had suddenly died that morning on the dock of the rowing club where he had spent most of his days for the past ten years.
That a stranger would tell me of my father’s death in many ways seemed inevitable since, soon after getting divorced from my mother when I was seven, he left our home near Boston and moved to southern California. Like many parents of divorced families my father saw us only once or twice a year and, as time went by, he became something of a stranger himself to me, someone I knew but didn’t know, whose life was always deeply connected yet oddly peripheral to mine.
To be talking with strangers about my father’s death, then, felt in keeping with the nature of our relationship. How else would I have expected to learn of his collapse than from people I didn’t know? This was part and parcel of who we were as father and daughter, and as I began to recognize that he was gone, I was overwhelmed with despair at the separation between us, which was now permanent, and which, I believed, could never be repaired.
The day after the phone call, I traveled to the west coast to deal with the details of my father’s death—his apartment, his possessions, his body. I was ready to complete all of the required responsibilities myself yet, upon my arrival in Los Angeles, I found myself surrounded by people who wanted to help. Some I interacted with only once or twice—at his bank, his apartment building, the post office—yet their humanity made closing down my father’s life more bearable. Others took time to mark my father’s memory: the man who presented me with an official United States flag in my father’s service in the U.S. Navy; the rowing club friend who scattered rose petals the water during a memorial service, as the racing shell—with an empty seat in honor of my father—stroked by; the woman from South Carolina who sent me emails assuring me that he knew how much I loved him.
The strangers who took the time to talk with me, to feed me, to help me, have made my father’s life and death meaningful and real in ways I never could have done alone. Without my own connection to his daily life, I was unable to find a connection to his death, and, in essence, to him. Through their kindness the strangers I encountered in the days following my father’s death wove themselves into my experience of my father, making my memories a tapestry of many, as opposed to a creation of one.
I believe in the kindness of strangers and mark my belief as my father’s legacy to me. I have witnessed first-hand the power that a word, a phone call, a helpful act, an encouraging smile, can have on the un-expecting recipient and it has changed me.
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