When I was giving birth to Ellie, my midwife was Jenny.
Jenny was no-nonsense and very practical, and had steely eyes and gentle hands. Faced with my very vocal conviction that I could, simply, not give birth anymore and I’d appreciate it if she’d cancel all proceedings (a polite way of saying I was hanging off the side of the bed sounding bovine and increasingly desperate), Jenny knelt down beside me and said “Anna, labour is hideous, that’s why it’s called labour. No-one is getting this baby out but you. You can do it, and you will do it”. And then she calmly stood up and went to the other end of the room whilst I processed that unfortunate information.
Jenny had the measure of me and she knew I didn’t need tea and sympathy. Jenny’s kindness came from tough love.
When my great Aunty Barbara was alive, she told me she was lonely. Not in a way that sought sympathy, she was tough as old boots. She just matter-of-factly informed me that since her husband of 69 years had died, of course she missed the company. ”Radio 4 just isn’t the same”.
So together, we picked out a rescue cat. I’d just started a new job, and bought the cat as a gift. I remember feeling proud that I’d earned money that could bring someone else comfort.
I’d envisaged a fluffy moggy who’d sit on Barbara’s lap and watch the news with her, rubbing her face against Barbara’s arm, mewling gently. Instead, “Puss” was a black-haired tyrant who roamed Barbara’s garden and arched his back and circled and hissed at her whenever she dared venture out. Of course, Barbara loved this and rose to the challenge admirably, hissing back at Puss and waving her trowl threateningly. Barbara and Puss loved each other because they gave each other space, because they respected each other, because they looked out for each other, because having each other stopped them being lonely.
I should have suspected something wasn’t right when I saw the vet bills that Barbara had been paying, piled up on her desk. ”Oh he’s an old cat. Old cats require a bit more maintenance” she’d say, airily.
I was on a train, I don’t remember where it was going. Barbara called me and I couldn’t hear what she was saying through her tears. The vet had discovered a shard of lead in Puss’s brain, from when he was mistreated when he was a kitten. He’d had to be put down.
For a really long time I felt wretched, like I’d brought more grief into Barbara’s world. A few weeks before she died, I told her that. She looked at me askance. ”You do have some funny ideas, dear. That cat brought me happiness. Your kindness brought me happiness. Kindness doesn’t always have to end well.”
I signed myself out early from hospital. Maternity wards are a similar temperature to that of the core of the Earth, and contain lots of women with grey faces shuffling around at 4am looking totally bemused, holding newborns. I couldn’t face more than one night there.
Unfortunately Mr K was at work the next day (for reasons beyond his control) and so my first day at home with the baby involved me not really able to move, holding a baby, learning how to breastfeed. I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed, but I was pretty close. I didn’t know enough about babies to be confident of putting her down anywhere, I’d slept for four hours in five days, my critical reasoning and resilience were subsequently non-existent and if I sat down I couldn’t get back up without wanting to cry because of the scar. And the thing that really got to me, ridiculously, was that the house was an absolute tip, and I didn’t have any hands free to do any washing or cleaning. So I just sat there, staring at the mess, holding Ellie, thinking “is this what it’s going to be like?”.
There was a knock on the door. It was my neighbour, who has a 4-year-old boy, and is a GP, and is possibly the kindest person I’ll ever meet in my life. She took one look at me, assessed the situation, made me a cup of tea, put the washing on, helped clear away the worst of the mess, helped me position Ellie so I could feed her more easily, talked to me, made me another tea. She took one look in the fridge and one swift phone call later, her husband dropped by with the greatest lunch I’ve ever eaten (cheese and Worcester sauce on toast). She left me feeling brighter, and as though I could do this. And then she dropped round that evening with dinner for me and Mr K. And she kept dropping round, never obtrusively, just to do the small things, until we were on our feet and we knew what we were doing that little bit more.
She’d been there before. Her kindness came from empathy.
When I was eight years old, my sister came running up to me one evening before bedtime. ”I’ve got a surprise for you!” she exclaimed. ”It’s in the bathroom”.
Excited, I ran into the bathroom. She’d put toothpaste on my toothbrush for me.
“That’s a RUBBISH surprise”, I told her. Her face crumpled.
It’s a running joke between us now, but I have thought about that, and how awful that made me feel, my whole life. I try to never, ever dismiss anyone’s kindness. Toothpaste on a toothbrush isn’t the best example, but the lesson rings true. You don’t know what someone’s kindness has cost them.
I remember a long time ago, when someone very close to my husband died. One morning shortly afterwards, he said to me “you’d go without. So would she.”
I asked him what he meant. He has a theory. You get given a box of chocolates as a gift. They’re good chocolates, ones you love. You offer the chocolates around. It soon becomes apparent there aren’t enough chocolates to go around, and if you keep offering, you’ll go without.
“Some people”, he said, “will keep a chocolate for themselves, because it’s their box, their gift. She wouldn’t have. She’d have given away her last without a second thought”
I think about that theory a lot. There are people who keep something back for themselves, and people who instinctively go all out, who don’t even think of what they’re doing as kindness. It’s just what they’ve learned to do. To write and send a card when someone is going through a hard time. To give someone a hug. To give up what they want to make someone else happier. Acts of kindness big and small. Sacrifices of the heart, or just letting some else know they are not alone.
Kindness should be everyone’s default setting, but it’s not. I wonder why some people have it naturally, some have to work at it, and some don’t bother with it at all. I’m pretty sure we aren’t born with inherent kindness, I’m pretty sure we’re taught it.
Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort, but I’ve never heard anyone say they regret being kind.