Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Paying Serendipity Forward
In 1860 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life that “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” So last winter when serendipity curled around me and my wife like the warm midday sun after a cloudy morning, it would have been easy to simply enjoy the glare of good fortune. After all, we had been through a lot recently with my multiple sclerosis; we deserved a little providence.
We were checking into a cozy bed and breakfast in southern New Mexico when we noticed a couple enjoying wine at the inn’s small bar in the kitchen. (It’s always a nice touch when B&Bs have a complimentary wine hour in the evenings.) But after some small talk with the other guests, we realized a) the inn didn’t offer a complimentary wine hour and b) the wine we were drinking was in fact that of the nice couple we had recently befriended. Admittedly, I am talented in the art of the faux pas and have expert skills in the plying of alcohol, but I don’t usually display them with such gusto around strangers.
The evening tumbled forward in the most unpredictable of ways. We shared our life’s successes, its hurdles, and our quirky passions. We even discussed the artistry and anguish of the television show Breaking Bad for what had to be a full hour. Eventually we were toasting glasses of Stag’s Leap cab sav over an opulent steak dinner at one of the state’s priciest restaurants with these people we had just met. And my wife and I were not able to pay for any of it. Andy wouldn’t let us contribute a cent. Really. It was that kind of night.
It’s easy to forget when you have a disease like multiple sclerosis that your life isn’t the only one that is difficult or challenging or painful. Our new friend Andy tragically had lost a son some years earlier in a dorm room fire—a fire set by an arsonist. He was helpless to prevent his son’s murder. Then he lost his wife; couples often divorce after the death of a child. I am sure that he continues to grapple with his life’s daggers and there is no way I would trade my MS for his heartbreaks. And there is no way I will ever forget his generosity.
“I learned from my son’s death not to wait for tomorrow,” Andy wrote on a memorial website for his son. “To be a little more patient with others. I also learned the importance of being true to one’s self and I also learned how to be more forgiving.”
A couple weeks after meeting Andy and his new wife, we were at dinner sitting next to a pair of innocent high school students clearly on a date and lost in themselves. She spilled a glass of water in her lap, giggling through her braces; her young boyfriend quickly volunteered his sympathy and then his napkin. We couldn’t possibly guess what their future holds—what life hurdles they’ll ultimately be faced with—but for that night we made their today a little more memorable. We paid Andy’s generosity forward and covered their dinner tab in full. (Granted, they drank water and ordered no appetizers or desserts, so we can’t take that much credit for being altruistic.) When the young man found out at the end of their meal what we had done, we got the most heartwarming of compliments: “Whoa, that’s sick, dude.”
I remember being that boy. Dating a cute girl in high school. And I married her. (The photo I've posted is shortly after we started dating—I had just turned 20 and Laura 17.) This week we celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. Now that is sick. Thanks, Andy, for the reminder not to wait until tomorrow and for demonstrating the power of paying it forward.