The comfort of strangers

An act of compassion from a woman he'd only just met still moves Jon Bauer years later. In times of trouble, he writes, these moments of connection remind us what it is to be human

In the early hours of 11 July 1999 I lost two very significant people in my life. One of them was my mother, the other was a stranger.

I'd known for a year my mum was dying, and I was dedicated to being there for her when it happened. The hospice promised they'd be able to warn me when the time was close, but they misjudged the signs, so instead of being at her bedside, I was in a stranger's bed.

I understand now that I coped with my mum's long fight against cancer as best I could, that I sometimes drank and slept around. When the unexpected call came, "hospice" showing up on my mobile phone screen, the girl lay in bed and watched me take the news. She saw my reaction, muted as it was after a painful year of expecting the worst. Then we hugged each other as she sobbed. I was too numb to feel anything but her kindness. Months passed and I didn't really look back.

Gradually, I started to think about her more and more, dwelling on her tenderness and the way she'd been there for me at one of the most significant moments you can have – the way she'd expressed what I'd been unable to at the time. But it's been 13 years now and my quiet fascination with her hasn't abated.

My mum was ill for a whole year, a year in which there were countless acts of kindness offered by her friends, family and neighbours – people with whom I had a history. This girl didn't do anything miraculous.

So why is it a stranger I want to see again and yet I've lost touch with every single one of my mother's friends and family, those neighbours? I'm not alone in experiencing this seemingly disproportionate reaction. Many of us have a story about a kind stranger – a moment where at a critical time, or even just a mildly stressful or lonely one, someone stepped from the shadows and did something.

Not necessarily anything heroic or dramatic, but because they're strangers and they act at a particular moment their kindness takes on extra significance.

Jane was in Thailand when the tsunami hit: "There was a rush of survivors to higher ground, and I remember all of us were sleeping out in the open in tight rows, all of us strangers, and yet all of us holding hands. Those few days after the tsunami I felt like I was falling in love over and over again, with everyone I met. Every connection was heightened and intense."

But the experience doesn't have to be life-or-death in order to have significance, as Liz's story highlights: "I'd forgotten I was taking antibiotics and therefore found myself very drunk on very little. I was desperate to get home and flagged down a mini cab. When it was time to pay, the man told me he wasn't a cab but that he'd known I'd get into a car with anyone. He refused payment for what was a sizeable journey. I find it easy to idolise him, as well as imagine some of the awful things had someone else come along."

Often there's an interpretation of serendipity in the actions of strangers. My friend Carl also lost his mother, but her sudden deterioration meant she was unconscious in a hospice before they'd discussed her death or last wishes. "A lady (Gill) arrived to visit saying she was a recent acquaintance of Mum's – I took the opportunity to go out for some air. Before Gill left she gave me her phone number. Mum died that night, and after the exhausting calls to friends and family, something made me phone Gill. It turns out that she and Mum share the same birthday, 27 September, which is also my birthday. Critically, Gill is the vicar of a local parish church and she told me Mum had sat on a bench and got talking to Gill only days before, communicating to this stranger that the church would be a nice place to be laid to rest. Mum's buried there now, close to that very bench, and every year I go to see her on our birthday and have lunch with Gill – so I still get to wish someone happy birthday on my birthday, as I always did with Mum," he said.

I've fallen short of wandering up Burntwood Lane in Wandsworth and going into that block of flats on the right near the park, to see if my stranger still lives there.

If I really tried, maybe I could track her down. (Perhaps this article is a passive attempt.) I'm not sure what I'd say if I did find her, though I've imagined it many times. There'd probably be the tears I couldn't shed on the night. I know she must remember me too. It was such a raw and real moment. She behaved with more purity and beauty than I did, and it wasn't her mum who was gone.

I happened to be in London for the 7 July bombings, round the corner from Kings Cross. I remember the faces in the office when there was that unquestionable bang. Our pressing work and deadlines were instantly meaningless, everyone either went home, or if the closed transport networks made it too hard, they piled into the local pubs.

London isn't exactly open and friendly but that day there were unprecedented levels of eye contact and conversation between strangers. Yes the day was tragic, but for those caught up on the sidelines it was memorable also for the way it blurred the imagined boundaries between us. And it was impossible not to wish it could always be like that.

In rural Alaska people don't lock their homes. When they're away, especially in winter, they don't just leave them unlocked, they prepare a fire ready to be lit in the hearth, and stock the cupboards with food and water. I remember an Alaskan seeing my surprise at this and saying: "It's not like where you live – we still need each other here."

Perhaps this is why a stranger's kindness resonates so much? In cities and suburbs, more so in affluent countries, day-to-day survival isn't an issue any more (although it doesn't always feel like that). We don't physically need one another in order to live now. And without needing one another, we're not properly connected. Where would the connection come from? Hence the growing sense of isolation.

Alaska made me realise we lost meaning once our survival was secured. Danger or survival is like the Higgs Boson, that unseen force that gives our life its meaningful shape. The struggle for survival is the meaning and if your survival is even moderately in question, that ties you to others around you. It forces you to team up with them; depend on them; serve them. Real or imagined danger connects people and our connection to others is scientifically proven to be the pinnacle of experience.

To me it's no surprise that those moments when a stranger's actions become imprinted on us are typically at a time when our survival is called into question. Even if it's just a sense of our emotional survival under threat. Like when your mum has just died. It's in this emotional need and another's kindness, that we find connection. But there's something more magical about experiencing it with a stranger. So we carry that stranger's kindness everywhere we go.

Contact Jon via jonbauerwriter.com if you think you know his stranger. Jon Bauer is the author of a novel, 'Rocks in the Belly' (Serpent's Tail, £11.99)

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