Sunday, October 23, 2011

Portrait of Goodness

After O's hang-gliding accident, many people were generous and compassionate, applying kindness like splints and salve to our pain. I replay in my mind these acts of generosity and love almost as much as the sad parts of our post-accident life, like a B-side of a record that deserved to be the A-side but unfortunately wasn't. One good person I never forget is a woman named Joanne.

Pre-accident, knowing we would be leaving the U.S. soon, I had signed up for an Internet message board for expat families living in Switzerland. An early post I wrote was about Elmo, who was deeply loved and needed by our daughter (I was fond of him, too). I asked the Internet expat Swissies if there was Elmo merch to buy in Zurich, in case we wanted more Elmo stuff down the line. That was the kind of information that seemed critical for our family before the accident.

Of course, my priorities soon changed. Husband crashed. So daughter, Elmo and I flew to Switzlerand. New country, alone. Not a clue how to even locate a babysitter. My mom flew over, and then my sisters came, and then some friends and O's family. O's employer also offered help. But this was crisis management, not a long-term solution. My frequent, solemn conferences with neurologists were not compatible with a one-year-old's needs. My daughter and I had barely been separated her whole life, but we had to get a babysitter, of necessity a stranger.

So I sent an SOS to the strangers on the expat message board. I didn't know anybody on it. I must have sounded insane. Our story was so personal, but I unabashedly shouted for help in the least private forum in the universe. It seems so desperate, and I guess it was.

Several incredibly good people answered my pathetic post and offered help or advice. But the woman named Joanne made me feel she had nothing better to do, nothing she'd rather do, than help us, this little lot of freakishly unlucky strangers. "Let's face it. It could happen to any of us," she said.

Joanne was a stay-at-home mom, humble and self-deprecating. I would have liked her even if I hadn't suddenly needed her so much. She was very cute, low-key, slightly pixie-ish yet rugged, and funny. She was an extremely good sport, serving up veggie burgers (a novelty at that time and place!) and even hard-won Elmo goodies to appease my little G, whom I was suddenly wrenching out of my arms and thrusting into the those of a another.

I had the audacity to ask this poor woman (and her equally wonderful husband) for big favors over the next few months, mainly taking care of G so I could visit O and meet with his team of doctors and therapists, and spending the night once or twice. The first time we met, Joanne even drove out to meet me at the rehab so I could follow her to her house; I was too frazzled to believe I might manage to find it and deal with the strange towns and Swiss road signs (in the days before I had GPS or an iPhone for navigational security).

Joanne had a gift, in my memory, for hitting the right notes of sympathy or humor, or treating me like just a regular mom-woman at the right moments. And she was wonderful with my daughter. She made me feel a little bit safer when my nights were filled with bad dreams and the days with an even worse reality.

But what makes her so saintly is what I realized later, when my insight was less obscured by the throes of crisis: This woman took us in while she was herself seriously challenged caring for her bright and sweet, but not-easy, toddler. Soon after this time, he was diagnosed with a form of autism. But that didn't stop Joanne from being a superb mother both to him and to that toddler's baby sister.

Joanne was from Ireland and hadn't been in Switzerland long, couldn't speak the local language much, and her husband was working and travelling a lot. That can be an isolating and taxing situation when you've got little kids, even without taking on responsibility for a frantic stranger's baby. I admire Joanne's energy and selflessness as she added Project Freak-Accident-Family to her full plate of duties.

Yet she helped me - big favors she played down as if nothing at all - without hesitation, but with extraordinary, subtle compassion. She's one of many people who inspire me to be more generous, more compassionate. I haven't lived up to her standards or my ideals by a long shot. But I vow to continue to try.