herald

Friday 17 August 2018

Suzanne Power: A stranger’s kindness is the key to the past

I have a friend who had the saddest childhood: verbal abuse or silence was all he knew. He spent the past few decades recovering from his sense of worthlessness with the help of his wife, who refuses to give up on him when the pain overwhelms. He has remembered something he had forgotten.

Not awful. Wonderful. He has found in the black sea of his memory, a pearl of light. When he was around eight years old his family were on holiday in Eastern Europe, at a time when few went there. The childhood he describes is Stalinist. It's no wonder they went on holiday to this part of the world.

He has been working through his life looking for one good memory, one good thing he was told about himself. He couldn't find anything.

This morning his wife called over to me, eyes shining and I knew something big had happened. This is what she told me: When he began to tell her he had found a memory, she felt sick. She thought it would be another rant from his father in particular about how useless he was, how much of a dunce. He can recall no one speaking to him for days on end because he had done something we would consider childish, but his parents considered stupid. They broke him. He left home at 18 with all the appearances of being an intact and intelligent human with opportunities. He couldn't relate to anyone or feel anything. It's a miracle he married. He says that marriage was his salvation. But he tried to break the marriage too out of his desire to stay away from everyone.

This memory was not like the others. He was in a restaurant somewhere in the Eastern Bloc and a man came up to him, who hugged him for no reason and kept saying something in a language he couldn't understand. The feeling was the man had observed his father do something cruel and had overcome language, etiquette and barriers to hug my friend. Decades later the power of that embrace came to remind him a stranger once saw how much he needed to be held by someone.

The restaurant staff took the man away from the boy. He was weeping. I feel, and his wife feels, the stranger was weeping for the child and his pain. Since he unlocked that memory two others have surfaced. One is of an old lady in a car park who he helped with her bags. She told him he was going to do something special with his life. The other memory concerns a teacher who told him that he had a very unique presence and would do great work.

He has gone on to do that. He is an incredible father. His own children have had difficulties but they never felt unloved. It's for them he has put his life back together. It's horrible work, painful work, to recall a dark past. But in it strangers have been kind. Their words were all my friend had to go on.

He remembers that he thought about the stranger who hugged him for many years. He stopped thinking about him when he went to college and found friendships.

Never underestimate how much a kind comment can mean to a person in hard times. They are destiny and destination changers. People who have been considering suicide often speak about a chance comment that intervened and changed their minds. If it's on your mind, say it -- the person may need desperately to hear it.

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