The year was 1986. It was the week of Christmas. In the early hours of Dec. 23, my mother awakened me, having discovered my father’s lifeless body on the floor of our home. He had gotten up during the night and suffered a heart attack before returning to bed.
At that point, our holiday plans for last-minute shopping, wrapping, exchanging gifts and sharing Christmas dinner were replaced by choosing a casket, scheduling funeral arrangements and making sure dad’s best suit was cleaned.
Unwilling to hold the funeral on Christmas Day, we scheduled it for Dec. 26. In those days, and in our town, families didn’t host a brief visitation window of a few hours — they spent most of the day and much of the evening receiving family and friends.
And so it was, that on Christmas Day, I found myself sitting with family members in the kitchen of the funeral home. Dreams of turkey and dressing no longer danced in our heads. We would spend the evening greeting friends and loved ones and snacking on sandwiches and doughnuts.
But then, something unexpected happened.
As I sat in the kitchen of the funeral home, I saw a long-time family friend walk through the back door carrying a large box. She was followed by others carrying more items. As they placed containers of food on the kitchen counter, I walked over to thank them.
The family matriarch took my hand, looked me in the eye and said that one should go without Christmas dinner. Therefore, she had brought the meal to us. In addition to providing Christmas dinner for her own family, this woman had cooked a whole hen, stuffing and a variety of down-home Southern favorites so that our family could have some semblance of the holiday comforts being enjoyed by much of the planet that night. It was still Christmas Day at the funeral home, but our sadness was now tempered with joy thanks to the kindness of others.
For years I've had the notion that some day I would return the favor for a random family. You know, pay it forward. This week, I contacted a local funeral director, but the unpredictability of what will happen in coming days makes it difficult to carry out my plan. He will keep me apprised — and as much as I'd like to finally carry out this random act — I hope there is no need. I hope no grieving family will be receiving friends at his funeral home in the days just before Christmas. But illness and suffering take no holidays, so a local hospital is my backup plan.
Grief will touch many families this Christmas season. While the sting of death affects those left behind regardless of the day or time of year, grieving during the holidays is especially difficult. It carries the added weight of witnessing joy all around you but not being able to participate. My heart grieves for the families in Newtown. Conn. — families that will find little joy this holiday season. Perhaps some random souls will perform random acts to touch their hearts and restore their faith in the good of humanity.
Recently, NBC journalist Ann Curry coined the #26Acts hashtag on Twitter in honor of the victims in Newtown. There's also a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/26acts) dedicated to the random acts movement. Today, on the 26th anniversary of my father's death, I bought a Christmas bouquet and gave it to the sweet lady who does the cooking demonstrations at my local grocery store. I handed her the flowers and a card with "#26Acts. For Emilie Parker. For Newtown." Her face erupted into a huge smile. She almost cried and gave me a big hug. I wished her a Merry Christmas as I headed out with my grocery bags. It felt GOOD. I felt good. She felt good. It's exponential.
I hope we'll all look for ways to spread cheer to others this Christmas season. (And every single day!) We are all sojourners here together, all facing our own struggles. When we lift up each other, we lighten the burden for all. Your act of kindness doesn't have to be big, just heartfelt. Believe me, it can be the glimmer of light to someone surrounded by darkness.
Here's to many random acts of kindness — at Christmas time or any time.
Have you received a totally unexpected gift that touched your heart? Have you performed a random act of kindness for someone else? Share your story in the Comments.