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I don't know if it's the hard-nosed reporter in me or the incurable romantic, but for some strange reason that I cannot fully explain, I constantly find myself poring over the "personals" in various newspapers week after week. I have been married for nineteen years and am certainly not looking for another spouse, yet I'm utterly riveted by these ads. The drama of everyday life is reflected by them, and they pay eloquent testimony to the hopes, dreams, and endurance of the human spirit.
Once in a while, I find an ad that I actually think is appropriate for a single friend of mine or for my widowed mother, and I refer them to the box number, urging that they respond. But most of the time, I just read these ads out of idle curiosity and an insatiable desire to know what lurks in romantic hearts.
One day I was scanning the personals column of a local newspaper, when I was stopped short by one particular ad. "Wow, that's unusual!" I thought. "Could this be for real?" The ad that caught my attention read: "Henriettado you remember we met and courted at Camp Tamiment in 1938? I've never forgotten you. Please call me Irving ..." and a phone number was listed, rather than the more common box I.D. "Is this some kind of jokes?" I wondered aloud.
But all night long, I couldn't get the ad out of my mind. "Those personal ads cost a lot of money," I thought. "Why wouldsomeone waste so much money on a joke ... and what's the joke here, anyway?" Finally, in the morning I couldn't take it anymore, and decided I just had to know the truth. Gathering my courage, I dialed the number in the ad.
As soon as the mature voice answered, I knew this was no joke, but the real thing. At that moment, I almost regretted my decision to make the call, hoping that it would not raise the elderly man's expectations, even momentarily. "Uhh ... this is not Henrietta," I said quickly, "and I hope you don't mind ... but I was so intrigued by your ad, I just had to call and find out ... what's the story?"
Gracious and courtly in a manner that is unfortunately out of style these days, Irving amiably accommodated my inquisitiveness, and recounted the following story:
"In 1938, Henrietta and I were both counselors at Camp Tamiment, an overnight camp in Pennsylvania, and we fell in love. We were sure we were right for each other, that we'd found `the one.' However, Henrietta's parents didn't agree. She was seventeen at the time, and they felt she was much too young to get involved in a serious relationship. So in the fall, to get her away from me, they sent her to stay with an aunt in Europe, and she lived there for several years. There she met another man, whom she married. Heartbroken, I eventually married someone else. I never loved my wife in quite the same passionate way I loved Henrietta, but we did have a good marriage. She died three years ago, and I've been very lonely ever since. Lately, I've started to think about Henrietta a lot, and I've begun wondering if she's still alive. And if she's alive, whether she's still married. And if she's single now, could we reignite our old love? Well, you get the picture. Maybe I'm just a foolish man, but I was just hoping against hope that somehow Henrietta would see the ad. Or at least someone who knows her. I realize my chances are very slim, but I sort of thought at least I should give it a try."
I was very moved by Irving's recital, and found myself marveling at the essence of hope that resides in the human spirit, the trust and resilience that animate the soul. Irving's faith in the possibilities of the future, at the age of seventy-one, was indeed touching. I asked Irving if he would mind if I wrote a story about his search for Henrietta, and he instantly agreed, but unfortunately the editor of my magazine didn't like the idea at all. However, since I was fascinated to learn the outcome of Irving's quest and had also formed an affection for him over the phone, I kept his number and called him from time to time to see how the story played out. Sadly, he never got the phone call he was waiting for.
In 1993, two years after I first made contact with Irving, I was riding the IRT line of the New York subway system and was again engrossed in reading the personals columns of a local paper, when I heard a soft chuckle beside me. "Looking for a new husband, my dear?" the woman sitting next to me inquired with a laugh, looking pointedly at my wedding band and then at the personals page spread clearly on my lap.
"Oh," I blushed, a trifle embarrassed. "I just read them for fun. You know ... out of curiosity. Don't you ever have the yen?" I asked her.
"Not me," she said, shaking her head adamantly, "Too much pathos in those pages. They would break my heart, those ads." She turned to me with a warm smile, "But isn't it always fascinating, the different perspectives different people have on the same things?"
My interest in her quickened. "What an intelligent woman!" I thought delightedly. "In a way, you're right," I agreed, "there is a lot of pathos in these pages." And I began to tell her the story of Irving's tender quest for Henrietta. She seemed mesmerized by the tale, and listened to my recital with rapt attention. "Well," I concluded at the end of my account, "I wish I could give the story a happy ending and tell you Irving found Henrietta, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. Either Henrietta's already dead, or she lives in another city, or she just doesn't read the personals."
"It's the third choice, my dear," the woman said, patting my arm gently. "Trust me, I know."
Startled, I looked at the lined face that held vestiges of a regal beauty that had long since lost its bloom. "Do you still have his number?" she asked.
* * *
Hope is something that brings sunshine into the shadows of our lives. It is our link to a better tomorrow. When hope is gone, so too is our life force. And when hope is kept alive, so too is our determination to go on.
I was walking down a dimly lit street late one evening when I heard muffled screams coming from behind a clump of bushes. Alarmed, I slowed down to listen, and panicked when I realized that what I was hearing were the unmistakable sounds of a struggle: heavy grunting, frantic scuffling, the tearing of fabric. Only yards from where I stood, a woman was being attacked.
Should I get involved? I was frightened for my own safety, and cursed myself for having suddenly decided to take a new route home that night. What if I became another statistic? Shouldn't I just run to the nearest phone and call the police?
Although it seemed like an eternity, the deliberations in my head had taken only seconds, but already the girl's cries were growing weaker. I knew I had to act fast. How could I walk away from this ? No, I finally resolved, I could not turn my back on the fate of this unknown woman, even if it meant risking my own life.
I am not a brave man, nor am I athletic. I don't know where I found the moral courage and physical strength but once I had finally resolved to help the girl, I became strangely transformed. I ran behind the bushes and pulled the assailant off the woman. Grappling, we fell to the ground, where we wrestled for a few minutes until the attacker jumped up and escaped. Panting hard, I scrambled upright and approached the girl, who was crouched behind a tree, sobbing. In the darkness, I could barely see her outline, but I could certainly sense her trembling shock.
Not wanting to frighten her further, I at first spoke to her from a distance. "It's OK," I said soothingly. "The man ran away. You're safe now."
There was a long pause and then I heard her words, uttered in wonder, in amazement.
"Dad, is that you?"
And then, from behind the tree, stepped my youngest daughter, Katherine.
* * *
Many people fear that their good actions will go unrewarded. How often do we hear the cynical aphorism "No good deed goes unpunished"? Yet here is a vivid example of the fact that precisely the opposite often holds true. By resolving to risk his life for an unknown woman, the father ended up saving his own daughter's life. And in his determination to help another, the father discovered the amazing force and power of the will. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have been unable to summon up the physical strength to fight off the rapist. Yet his will was so great that he drew strength from an unknown and untapped source. We have capacities of which we are not even aware. In setting out to do a good deed for another, this man did a wonderful deed for himself!
When my son Joey turned eleven, he was suddenly stricken with panic disorder, which evolved into agoraphobia. His anxiety attacks were so severe that he spent close to a year confined to his room, while my husband and I searched frantically for a cure. Finally, after eleven months of sheer hell, we found a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac, a drug that achieved wonders. My husband and I were tremendously grateful that God had returned our son to us from the nightmare world into which he had been plunged.
During this time, we had visited a series of practitioners to determine the cause of our son's problem, and had discovered along the way that he was learning-disable. All the years that he had been in school no one had picked up on this fact, which we were told had contributed to or even totally created the anxiety problem. Now that he was cured of panic disorder, we had to find a school that specialized in learning disabilities. This was not so easy, we soon learned to our dismay. Given his recent medical record, nobody wanted him.
All the schools that specialized in learning disabilities claimed that their students had an educational problem, not an emotional one. Our son would not fit in, they maintained; they were not equipped to handle someone like him. All the psychologists I spoke with insisted that all LD (learning-disabled) children possess emotional components as a result of their disability, but when I repeated their words to school officials my protests fell on deaf ears. He was rejected by every school we applied to.
There was one particular LD school that I really wanted to get Joey into, because it had an excellent reputation and was close to home as well. I had campaigned hard to get him into this school, but they kept turning me down. "Please give my son a chance!" I begged. But nobody wanted to, and I was growing more desperate by the minute.
One evening, I happened to attend a charity event, where I found myself seated next to an older woman named Barbara with whom I was vaguely acquainted. I knew her to be a prominent society figure, very wealthy, very influential. Suddenly, before I could think or stop myself, I found myselfto my own shock and horrorpouring out my heart to her about my continuing travails with Joey. Even as I unburdened myself to her, I felt the inappropriateness of what I was doing. "Why are you telling this woman your troubles?" I scolded myself even as I continued to describe my litany of woes. But to my own mystification and chagrin, I found I just couldn't stop. I didn't stop, in fact, until I had completely exhausted every single last detail of my struggle to get Joey into the LD school of my choice.
When I was finally finished, I was appalled at myself. What had I gone and done? But to my surprise, Barbara neither distanced herself from me nor looked at me with disdain. Instead, to my complete surprise, her eyes filled with tears, and she patted my hand consolingly, reassuringly. "Honey," she said warmly, "you've told your story to the right person! It just so happens that I live next door to the founder and director of the school, and it also just so happens that I am one of their major league contributors. In fact, I have thrown many parlor parties for this particular school and raised tremendous amounts of money. You can consider your son a new student of this school. I give you my wordyou can depend on it!"
I couldn't believe my incredible luck, my great fortune! What a godsend, to have been seated next to Barbara! Sure enough, true to her word, she used her powers of persuasion and influence, and my son was accepted by the school for the coming year, where he excelled andfor the first time in his lifewas placed on the honor roll.
My sense of indebtedness to Barbara was infinite, and so I kept up with her, sending gifts and cards. I called her before each holiday to wish her well, and a bond was forged between us. During this time, I learned from other people that she had experienced many problems with her own two children. The older one, a son, was a drug addict who had recently disappeared, and the younger one, a daughter, was mildly retarded and problematic in many different ways. My heart ached for Barbara, especially when she inquired, frequently, about my son's progress, and seemed genuinely delighted to learn that he was doing well.
Our relationship continued to develop for about a yearand then Barbara's husband died suddenly. I traveled to the suburbs for the funeral, where I would meet her family for the first time. As I stood on the line that slowly filed past the mourning family to offer condolences, I was suddenly struck by a familiar figure sitting beside my friend. "Who's that young woman sitting next to Barbara?" I asked the woman behind me. "Why, that's her only daughter, Nancy," she answered, "you know ... the retarded one." I gasped, as I felt goosebumps erupt on my arms. Now everything was suddenly clear. Now I knew for certain why Barbara had been fated to be the agent of redemption for my son.
Twenty-five years before, when I had been a high school student in a private school, a mildly retarded girl whose name I had forgotten had joined our class in senior year. Although our school was not equipped for special ed cases, her wealthy parents had prevailed upon the school administration to give the girl a chance and allow her an education within a mainstream context. Their wealth and influence had overcome all objections and the girl had been admitted, albeit with great hesitation.
Life in this school, however, was not easy for this young woman. She was viewed as both an outcast and a pariah. She was cruelly shunned by virtually everyoneeveryone that is, except me. I had always championed the underdog. I had great sympathy for those on the fringe, and had always made an effort to reach out to themas I reached out to this girl.
On our high school graduation trip to Washington, D.C., no one wanted to room with her in the hotel. I volunteered, and although the experience wasn't an easy one, I was glad that I had done so. After graduation, the class dispersed and separated, striking out in different directions. Some I hadn't ever seen again, some I had forgotten about. Like ... Nancy.
For it was Nancy who was the young woman sitting next to Barbara. It was Nancy, long-lost, long-forgotten Nancy, who was in fact Barbara's daughter. During our senior year together, I had never met nor spoken with Nancy's mother, and we had never had occasion to be introduced. Yet our lives had apparently become inextricably connected, our destinies fated to intersect. As the line slowly worked its way towards the mourners, and I drew closer to Barbara and Nancy to pay my respects, my eyes filled with tears.
Twenty-five years ago, I had helped Barbara's daughter. Twenty-five years later, Barbara had repaid the favor and helped me with my son.
Perhaps our own memories are sadly too short, but happily God's is blessedly long.
* * *
When we perform a charitable deed or benevolent action, it doesn't disappear into a vacuum or a spiritual black hole; ultimately we can expect to be repaid. Sometimes, we are repaid within a matter of moments or hours after executing the kindness, and can immediately see the connection between our deed and our reward. However, there are deeds that take decades to be repaid, but when they finally are, we often gasp at their fitting symmetry! Of course, virtue is its own reward and the desire for compensation is rarely the reason we perform acts of kindness. Nonetheless, it is heartening to receive a nod of acknowledgment from God every now and then, an affirmation that we did the right thing and that our deeds are duly registered with a universe that remembers.