How will we be remembered? By our grand strokes? Perhaps. But what will also commemorate us are the small and unexpected kindnesses we bestow on others.
I remember as a child of eight going camping with a neighboring family. Mr. and Mrs. White were friends of my parents and I had come to know their two children. I had never experienced the outdoor life before: this was truly an adventure. We sat around a bonfire that first night, and I was bewitched. I lived in an apartment above a hardware store: The only fires I'd seen were in incinerators. After a singsong and marshmallow roast we headed inside the cavernous tent, crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off.
I awoke in the early hours to discover the worst had happened, the singular thing I lived in wretched fear of throughout my childhood. I had, quite simply, wet my sleeping bag. Oh, not simply wet it: Think garden hose. Think Victoria Falls.
There are few things more desolate to a little girl than lying fully awake in the dark in the company of relative strangers, all who are sleeping soundly, her sleeping bag sodden, scared to move a muscle in case someone might suspect.
An inveterate bed-wetter as a child, I can still remember how torn I was when asked by friends for sleepovers. Should I, shouldn't I? Would this be the night the floodgates let loose on a friend's unsuspecting 900-count bed linens? How could I face them afterwards? And what if they talked? Come to think of it I don't quite know why I agreed to this camping trip, except that now and again you just decide to shoot the moon.
As I waited for dawn to arrive, I listened to the forest sounds about me, trying to figure a way out of my dilemma with some shred of dignity intact. Everyone would know. And I had worked so hard at seeming grown up around my two new older friends. The temperature dipped steadily as the hours ticked by, adding to my list of worries. Would I have to be physically chipped out of my saturated enclosure because it had turned into a solid block of ice?
When my tent-mates finally began to stir I feigned sleep, feeling ridiculous and small and overwhelmingly homesick, wishing I could be transported to a parallel universe. I considered several options, a couple even within the realm of possibility. I thought about rolling the bag up and running with it headlong into the forest behind the campsite, shrieking, claiming that a rodent the size of Sephora's flagship store had crawled inside it overnight.
It's a trifle easier for bed wetters now: Kids today can rely on trusty "pull-ups," with saturation levels akin to sea sponges. This is a product I would then have sold my next of kin for.
Resigned, I uneasily awaited my doom alone. It seemed like the family would never finish breakfast. Mrs. White's daughter poked her head in the tent suddenly and asked if I wanted to go for a bike ride with them. From the confines of my cocoon I begged off, claiming a tummy upset. "I'm sure I'll be okay later," I said, trying to sound buoyant.
Once they'd left I unzipped myself from the crime scene, got dressed, hid the grim evidence as best I could, and went out to meet my fate. Mrs. White had stayed behind and was clearing the breakfast things. I approached her cautiously: I had no idea what to expect. I did not know the woman very well.
She turned toward me, happy to see that I had finally surfaced.
"Good morning dear," she chirped, warmly. "How are you feeling?"
I had to tell someone, I realized.
"I've had an accident," I blurted out, trying not to cry.
"What is it?" she said, rushing over to me and gathering me in her arms. "What's wrong?"
"My sleeping bag: I've ruined it," I squeaked, finally unable to hold back the tears.
Without missing a beat, she said, "Not to worry," and squeezed me tighter. "It's past time they had a good cleaning anyway. Let's bring them all out and give them a hose down."
I did not need to be asked twice. I broke a land speed record gathering up all the bedding and piling it outside.
By the time the others returned all five of our sleeping bags were blowing in a strong breeze on the wash line we'd rigged up. Mine looked no different than the others: I was exultant.
That night when I crawled into my now-pristine sleeping bag I discovered that inside was a thick plastic sheet atop a cotton one. The next morning and for the three following it I was dry as a bone upon waking. Mrs. White never mentioned the incident again.
As I write this I can't recall exactly what Mrs. White looked like or whether I ever saw her again, but I will never forget what she did for me that sun-drenched summer morning.
By her one small exquisite act of kindness that day she made it possible for me to go on.