“Okay ma’am, help is on the way. Hang in there.” In retrospect I’m sorry I didn’t take her name. I’d like to tell her what she meant to me that night. I’d like to explain to her that on 5 August 2015 before 8pm I might have been a stranger to her, miles away from where she sat with an earpiece to her head, staring at a computer screen. But on 5 August 2015 at around 8:15pm, she became the angel who lifted from me the loneliness of having my mother die in my arms. And she managed to do it with five words.
Help is on the way.
Loneliness is a cancer that eats away at almost everyone. Statistics tell us that almost a quarter of all people on earth suffer loneliness. But the nature of the thing means that just because more than 1,5 billion of us feel lonely, we don’t feel united in our loneliness. Isolation cloaks you in a thick blanket and you can’t see that the guy next to you suffer as you do.
But emergency…death…trauma…that unites us, doesn’t it?
When my mom died a few months after my dad, my friends, colleagues and people I hardly knew saw to it that I was neither hungry nor alone. People stood up for me and said: “Hey you. You will grieve your losses, but you will not suffer hunger or loneliness. Not on our watch.”
But that is a small example.
A thousand years ago on some talk show, they told the story of an African woman living in poverty with her two teenage children. To make money, she carried heavy objects on her back like large bales of hay, mattresses or other household items for those who wanted it moved. From years of the assault this hammered down on her back, she developed severe spinal distortion and could no longer walk upright. On the show, they showed her return to her little shack one evening. Her daughter excitedly brought her a small bottle of lotion she had purchased from a local vendor with her mom’s last bit of money.
As long as I live, I will never forget the expression on the woman’s face.
It is what defeat looks like. I cried for days. At her suffering. At her frustration. At the unfairness of life. And at the fact that she was alone. Even in a home filled with loving kids, she was alone in carrying the burden of caring for them.
That woman – if she’s still alive – will never know me. I’m a privileged potato who, despite some small donations, probably never impacted her life. But perhaps in the Afterlife she will know that somewhere on the planet there was a girl who cried for her. Who prayed for her for many years.
Perhaps in the Afterlife I’ll meet her. I’ll say: “I was with you.”
When the Twin Towers fell in 2001, millions of people across the world instantly became New Yorkers. People studied the lives of the victims, donated where they could and some even flew to the USA to volunteer. All those people…the emergency workers…they all looked at people in trouble and said: “Hey you. You are not alone.”
When the boys were trapped in the Thai caves in 2018, the world came to a standstill to watch the legendary rescue attempts.
Sure, there are those who show up in troubling times driven by a morbid sense of curiosity. But in my experience the vast majority of people just wanna help in some way. To matter somehow. Because even for the helpers, that means alleviation of the feeling that you are alone on the planet.
Today I see a continent burning. I’ve never been to Australia. But I know there are big spiders, big snakes and some really fun people. I know it’s a beautiful country.
Flames have taken a lot from this beautiful country. But I can tell from the news and from the reports of people I know there that it has not taken the one thing that I think I like the most: human beings’ incontrovertible ability to stand up for each other when they are in trouble.
My prayers – though consistent and rather aggressive they may be – must be little comfort to those in pain and those who have lost everything. I realize that. But I hope that Australians will know that while they may be in trouble, they are not alone.
You will grieve, Australia, but you will not do so alone. Not on my watch.