A little over one year ago, I received an email from a college friend, Sarah, who had recently inherited her share of her father’s estate. While grateful for this windfall after years of raising a family and struggling with mortgage payments and college debt, she mourned his loss and wished to do something in his memory. She and her husband Daniel had recently become grandparents and decided to contribute to their daughter’s household, allowing her to extend her maternity leave. They also treated their son and his partner to a summer vacation, something they’d previously not been able to afford.
Sarah’s joy of giving was palpable and moving. Even though I didn’t have children, I had worked for years as a fundraiser and could relate to the satisfaction of helping someone, whether a loved one or stranger, in need. At the end of her message, Sarah wrote: “Giving is a good way of getting older.” Her words struck a chord, as we had both recently celebrated milestone birthdays. While I’d never thought of giving from the perspective of aging, it wasn’t a stretch because I’d had two very generous parents as role models. I commended Sarah on her gift giving, adding that her family would always remember her generosity with appreciation.
Later that day, with Sarah’s words coursing through my mind, an opportunity arose which challenged me to put them to the test. In the afternoon, I noticed on Facebook that a friend’s father had suddenly died. He was only a few years older than I was, and although he’d been ill, doctors had expected him to live. My friend, Keith, sounded devastated. I reached out and sent my condolences, asking how he was coping. Hours later, he messaged me the sad details and confided that he was having a very tough time. He was alone in Helsinki, as his wife and young child were already in Ghana, along with his mother, siblings, and their extended families. He was desperate to join them for his father’s funeral but hadn’t planned on going to Ghana until Christmas vacation.
After a volley of texting back and forth, Keith’s request emerged: he would endure any flight schedule to get to the funeral, but he didn’t get paid until the end of the month (three weeks away). His boss had already given him the time off but could not advance him his salary.
Keith and I weren’t especially close, but he was an integral part of my church community. I remembered how on two occasions when my husband was very ill, he had reached out with concern and support. I asked Keith if he had anyone to ask for assistance, but he said that no one in his social circle had spare cash. When he added that the funeral in Ghana was two days later, I realized that he’d contacted me as a last resort.
I looked at the calendar, then at my watch. It was 9:00 p.m., and I was already in my pajamas. It was also raining heavily, and the mall, where the ATM was located, closed at ten. My instinct was to help Keith to the extent I could, but this meant quickly changing gears, as he’d need to book his flight ASAP.
The timing of Sarah’s message and Keith’s request seemed more than coincidental. I thought back sixteen years to when my beloved father had also died suddenly. I’d been visiting him and my mother in Massachusetts as we planned my Christmastime wedding. How would I have felt if I’d been stranded in Finland and for some reason hadn’t been able to attend Dad’s funeral? Cringe. In that moment, I knew that if I didn’t do what I could to help Keith get home, it would haunt me. For years.
I told Keith I would consider his request but first needed to consider my financial situation. I researched the cost of the trip to his hometown in Africa (he also needed a connection flight) and then checked my American bank account, which sorely needed replenishing. A hefty credit card bill also loomed. Clearly, I could only afford to pay for part of the flight.
As the clock ticked to 9:15 p.m., I contemplated what to do. Since childhood, my mother had instilled in me the belief that “the more you give, the more you get.” Of course, she was right, as evidenced by the many friends and relatives who adored her and my father and were grateful for their generosity. Now, I envisioned her standing over me, saying: “Linda, get up and get dressed, and go help that nice young man!”
After informing Keith of my intended contribution, he agreed to meet at the mall at 9:35 p.m. I got dressed, donned my winter coat, and waved “good-bye” to my husband Otto, who was watching the news on TV and didn’t question my need to get a carton of milk at that late hour. I planned to tell him about Keith once I returned home.
Upon entering the mall, I saw Keith slumped against a stone wall in the distance. After withdrawing cash from the machine and hastily purchasing a card from the market, I gave him a big hug (oh, the good ole pre-pandemic days). His eyes were bloodshot; obviously, he’d been crying. I joined him on the bench and listened in sympathy as he told me how distressed he was about losing his dad. Then I asked him to indulge me in listening to a story about mine.
I told Keith about my father’s childhood in Harlem and the Bronx and how he’d suffered from poverty, abuse, and neglect. Despite these challenges (even being knifed by a thief as a kid), he hadn’t harbored bitterness about his past. On the contrary, he was one of the kindest, sensitive men I’d ever known. Even after his fortunes changed, courtesy of a college diploma through the GI Bill, Dad never forgot his humble roots and helped those who faced similar obstacles.
“He sounds like an incredible person,” Keith said afterward.
“He was,” I said. “You know that quote from the Bible, ‘The Lord loves a cheerful giver’?” Keith nodded. “Well, that was my father’s motto. I mentioned that in his eulogy.” Now my eyes were misty, too. I turned to Keith, took his hand, and gave him the envelope. “This is in memory of my Dad,” I said. “I wanted you to know what type of person he was because he would have encouraged me to be here.”
Keith reached over, and we hugged in silence for a long time. Then, the loudspeaker announced that the mall was closing. I wished him a safe trip and waved as he made his way down into the metro. I walked home with a spring in my step.
Otto had heard my gait upon the steps and was waiting at the door. “Are you okay?” he said, noting the smile on my face and the absence of a milk carton.
“I’m great,” I said, telling him about Keith’s father, the upcoming funeral, and the expense.
“You helped him, didn’t you?” Otto said. I beamed. “I say you’re the richest gal in Finland tonight.” I knew he wasn’t referring to my bank account.
“See all the things that can happen while you’re watching the news?” I said.
Over the next two weeks, I followed Keith’s arduous journey to Africa and back on Facebook and felt the deep satisfaction my mother and Sarah had alluded to in their comments about giving. I couldn’t imagine feeling more fulfilled than if I’d bought myself a new party dress or fancy phone. Even though Keith and I are from very different backgrounds, we had shared a real connection in bonding over our deceased dads. I’ll never forget those moments of reminiscing together.
Today, Giving Tuesday, I’m thinking of Keith and the African family he’s not seen since the funeral due to travel restrictions. Soon after he returned to Finland, the pandemic hit, and he has been battling Covid-19 on the hospital frontlines since. As he struggles to save lives, I’m grateful that I was able to help him during his time of mourning.
In celebration of Giving Tuesday 2020, I will make a modest donation to an organization providing food relief during the pandemic. It’s only a small gesture, but even those have the power to transform the donee—and the donor. If giving is part of getting older, then I think Sarah is on to something.