I owe you

There are people in the world whom you owe. People you think about, and wish you’d thanked, or more than thanked, at the time, but out of shock, or because you weren’t thinking straight, you didn’t.

All this long time later, how can you make it up them? You can’t, not to them personally. You can try to be kind, try to ease the lives of others, but that’s a going-forward kind of thing. You can’t go backward.

You’d like to thank those men in the rusty beater of an ancient car who saw you stuck in the middle of that snowfield between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles that blowy winter day 15 years ago, that day when your tiny car slid right off Lake Street and sailed out into the snow.

How many cars drove right past? Dozens. It is and was a busy, busy intersection. You sat behind the wheel, calming yourself, ready to get out and trudge all the way back home, from there to call a tow truck. No cell phone, back then.

Then the ancient car full of Spanish-speaking men pulled off to the side of that busy street, and all of them jumped out, running across the snow to where you were just getting out of the car. Laughing, gesturing, they pointed you back into the car, and then they massed around the car, motioning you which way to turn the wheel, and pushed you back onto Lake Street. Two of them stood in the far right lane, directing traffic around you until you could safely make it back onto the pavement.

You got out again, wanting to thank them, maybe offer them some money, something, anything, but again they laughed and motioned you back in the car. They jumped into their rusty beater and they were off, leaving you with the memory and, ever since, a wave of gratitude whenever you hear a group of men chattering in Spanish.

You’d like to go back in time, fourteen years ago now, to a public park in Hangzhou, China. You and your baby daughter in her stroller at dawn, making your way around the paths. So hot. So unbearably hot, even at dawn.

A group of women practicing fan-dancing. A group of men and women and teenagers doing tai chi. A woman, swimming alone in a greenish, rubbage-strewn pond. You and your baby daughter, taking in the sights.

From across the grass came three men, two walking and their friend in a primitive contraption that passed for a wheelchair. Made of steel, or iron, low to the ground, with creaky unstable wheels, he pushed himself along laboriously. You watched. In a way, it was a beautiful and amazing sight.

“I like your vehicle,” you said in Chinese, unable to think of a better word for the thing that he was strapped into.

He looked up at you with dark, deep eyes. Raised his eyebrows.

“It’s very difficult,” he said.

Simple words that you have never forgotten. This man comes to you in your mind often. It’s very difficult. You can hear his voice still. You can see his two friends, standing patiently beside him.

Within an hour of leaving the park you were filled with regret. “I like your vehicle”? You had money, relatively so anyway. You had passed a store the previous day that sold wheelchairs, shiny new ones, ones like Americans used.

You wish to this day that you had gotten that man a wheelchair, or given him money to buy one. It’s very difficult.

Many, many years ago, someone left a basket of food outside your apartment door. This was not a pre-made, cellophane-wrapped basket of cheese and sausage. This was a basket that she had put together herself, and it came with a note.

I’m not Jewish, read the note, in part, but there’s a Jewish tradition that when someone is grieving, you should leave them food. I wish I could do more.

You barely knew this woman. You had run into her a few times, was all. But she knew of the awful thing that had happened, and she went to stores and bakeries and put together that basket for you, and she wrote you that note. You brought the basket into the tiny kitchen and you put it on the table.

You owe her too, for that simple, complicated act of kindness. To this day you remember it, how she tried to comfort you when she didn’t even know you.

That man on the sidewalk below as you type this, walking his dog. That boy on the skateboard, the one who must be skipping school. Your own dearest friends and family. The woman ahead of you at Rainbow Foods. The girl behind the counter at Kinko’s.

You owe them all, somehow, and you will try to remember that.


  1. Karen · April 15, 2011

    I love reading what you write. Very often I don’t feel like I have the right words to respond appropriately, but the things you say here stay with me. This is beautiful–thank you.


  2. Lucy · April 15, 2011

    Humbling and salutary, and beautiful indeed.


  3. alison · April 18, 2011

    Thank you, Karen and Lucy. I love your blogs.


  4. hhb · April 20, 2011

    Again, you have got me pondering on those I must thank too. So I thank YOU…


  5. alison · April 25, 2011

    And I you, hhb. (I check your blog early each morning.)


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