The kindness of strangers

In my family ’tis the season for the car trip. The open road calls us and, like my parents before me, I put the children in the car, pack a bunch of snacks and start out hoping for the best travel experience possible. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult than others. Two weeks ago my parents took my oldest two boys, Ryan and Kevin, back home to Savannah with them for a visit. My parents enjoy having individual time with each of the children, and every year another pair of kids gets a turn to be taken down south and generally spoiled rotten.

It is their prerogative as grandparents and I am happy for them to be able to do it.

A week later I piled the remaining six children in my 12-passenger van and drove down south to save my parents the trouble of making the two-day drive back up north.  Since my husband has a living to earn, he stayed home and was flying down on the weekend to make the trip home with me. Let me tell you, he was devastated to miss six kids in a van for two days.

I left on a Monday and intended to finish the day’s driving in Lumberton, North Carolina at 5 p.m. This was about two hours later than I can usually make the journey, but I have two two-year-olds and a nursing five-month-old in the car, and I thought the trip would take a bit longer as a result. What I was not aware of was that there would be traffic in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, culminating in standstill traffic for the first 50 miles of North Carolina. It seems the first official week of summer is the time to start paving the roads in the south. All traffic was merged into one lane, and at one point it took me about three hours to go half a mile.

I was nearly insane with tension by the time I pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant at six o’clock, still a good three hours from my destination and hotel reservation. The kids were completely done in. Erin had been horrendously car sick for hundreds of miles and, well, two-year-old twins and a baby. You get the idea.

The nice waitress showed us to a big round table at the very front of the restaurant. I secretly planned an escape route for when these kids had finally had enough and began the inevitable meltdown. Miraculously it didn’t happen. After the young lady took our order, a jolly looking elderly man stopped at the table to compliment the children on their behavior. Katie and Erin thanked him nicely. He gave us a jaunty wave and off he went. Shortly after, my waitress came over to inform me that the nice man, named Mr. Spivey, had been so impressed with my kids he had paid for our meal. He had instructed her to say nothing to us until he had left so that I could not refuse his kind gift or even thank him properly. The waitress then went on to tell me that Mr. Spivey was dying of lung cancer. The chemo wasn’t working, and he was really very sick.

Talk about a wake-up call. Here I was feeling slightly sorry for myself — ok, very sorry for myself — for having suffered all day long, and this man was suffering an unspeakable illness and was cheerful, kind and generous to strangers in the midst of it all. My eyes met Katie’s across the table, and I saw that she was welling up, as was I. “A Hail Mary for our kind friend,” I said softly. We prayed for a miraculous healing for Mr. Spivey and for comfort and strength for those who love him. Yes, we are the kind of family that will just go ahead and pray out loud in a restaurant.

So as I proceed throughout this summer, going to barbecues, camping in Maine and swimming in the pool, I will remember that not everyone is enjoying themselves, and even when I’m not enjoying myself, I’m way better off than a lot of people. Our occasional car trips — I can’t really call them vacations since I come back exhausted — make for wonderful family memories. This one is more poignant, a reminder that God calls us to minister to those in need even if we ourselves are suffering. Thank you, Mr. Spivey, for reminding me.