Tomorrow I go play games with Grandpa.  The last visit was special to me because I learned something about three of my kids.  And what I learned gives me hope that they will develop into compassionate and caring adults.

I visited Grandpa twice in April.  Twice, because my fifteen-year-old daughter, Mack, requested the second visit.  She had enjoyed the previous time she got to play games with Grandpa and wanted to go again.  Since four of our seven kids had a day off from school during the week that we were “unplugged” I decided it would be a good time to let the kids visit Grandpa again.  Mack, Hoob, and Yawlin accompanied me to Grandpa’s house.  Shroom, my stepson, had already disappeared to a friend’s house, and since he doesn’t really know my Grandpa, I didn’t push the issue of having him join us.

Grandpa wasn’t feeling well when we arrived.  He joined us at the kitchen table for a game of Clue, but I could tell he wasn’t really into it.  Grandpa started to reminisce.  He got out his old year book and showed the kids all the pictures of himself.  He was on the football team and was captain of the track team; there was a picture of him throwing the javelin; he was in the chorus and a member of a men’s club called the D-Men.  He showed us Grandma’s picture and told us the story of when they met.

“I went to the Zenith Dance with another girl,” Grandpa said with a chuckle.  “While there, my date asked me if there was any other girl there that I wanted to dance with.  That was when I spotted your Grandma.  I pointed to her and said, ‘that one!'”

Grandpa says he never dated another girl but Grandma after that.

Grandpa moved on in his remembrances to telling us of his childhood friend, Delilah.  She was the only child his age that lived nearby so they did everything together.  She was like a sister to him.  She grew up, married, and moved to Arizona.  Later in life she contracted cancer and died. 

Grandpa’s facial expression changed.  There was a wistful, sad look in his eyes.  He told how Delilah’s husband brought her body back to Utah so Grandpa could conduct the funeral.  This brought more memories to mind.  Grandpa told of conducting the funeral of a little girl who had been killed by a horse.  He remembered several members of a family who had drowned as their car was washed away in a flash flood and another family that had lost five family members in a horrible car crash.

“Have you ever seen five caskets lined up in a row at one funeral?” Grandpa asked.

Then Grandpa moved on to a story I’ve heard him tell before.  Grandpa is sure Grandma hates him.  She wanted to die at home.  Grandpa’s kids talked him into leaving Grandma in the hospital where she could receive better care.  She died in the hospital.  To this day Grandpa swears that when he bent down to kiss Grandma good-bye in her casket before the start of her funeral he heard her snap, “Get away from me!”  He is positive Grandma doesn’t want to see him when he gets to the other side because he let her die in the hospital instead of at home.

The entire time Grandpa was talking I was watching him and noticing the facial expressions that matched the pain in his voice.  I wasn’t paying attention to my kids until I heard a loud sniffling.  I turned and saw eight-year-old Yawlin leaning forward on the kitchen table with tears streaming down his face.  He made no attempt to hide them.  I looked at Yawlin’s older sisters to see if they had noticed Yawlin crying.  Hoob had turned so her face couldn’t be seen, but I could see a lone tear hanging from her chin.  Mack was staring straight ahead with two tears trickling down her cheeks.

My sweet, wonderful children were touched by what they were hearing their “Grandpa Great” say.  They weren’t writing him off as some old geezer with stories to tell.  They were feeling what he was feeling.  I was glad that I had brought the kids along.  Yes, the stories were sad, and the kids talked about them for quite some time after the visit, but a stronger bond between the three of them and Grandpa was forged.  They are capable of compassion.  They can feel what others are feeling.  I will be forever grateful for the exercise in empathy my kids were provided that day. 

I have to admit, I was skeptical at first.  When my daughter told me the plan that she and her friends had hatched, my natural inclination was to protect her.  After all, I’ve been “burned” plenty of times in my life.  I know what it’s like to be hurt and I like to think I can spot a scam and manipulation from a mile away.

The history:

My daughter, Mack, really struggled for the first few months at her new school.  Changing schools while a teenager can be devastating.  She felt alone and friendless, hated the teachers, and had no interest in excelling at anything.  She stuck it out (she had no choice) and began to make friends.  Once friends were in place, her attitude about school changed.  Her confidence returned.  She began to like the teachers and once again get good grades.  Seventy-four kids showed up to her birthday party.  (I had given permission for twenty).  On a social level things are going well for Mack.

Enter Hannah.  (To protect privacy, all names in this post have been changed).

I first became aware of Hannah when Mack mentioned a girl at school who always seemed sad.  She reported that the girl talked suicide and that she was worried about her.  The girl didn’t have many friends.  In fact, most of the kids at school considered her strange.  We didn’t know the girl’s family so I advised Mack to tell the school counselor about Hannah’s comments and encouraged her to be her friend.  I didn’t hear much more about Hannah except for the occasional report that she still seemed sad.

Then last week Mack announced that she and three of her friends, Nikki, Lisa, and Becca, had decided to take Hannah shopping at the mall.  They felt that a few new clothes might cheer Hannah up.  Hannah had mentioned that her mother couldn’t afford to buy her new clothes and so she always wore hand-me-downs.  Each of the girls planned to donate her own money to the shopping trip.

I was worried.  I didn’t know Hannah or her history.  What if it was all an act?  Fueling my skepticism were recent news reports about panhandling in our area by teenagers who claim to be homeless but really aren’t.  Many people have bought into their sob story and have given them money.  Mack has to earn the money she receives by babysitting and doing extra chores, she doesn’t have an endless supply of the green stuff.  Was she about to throw her hard earned cash away on a lie?  Manipulation?  A scam? 

I know my daughter’s heart.  She genuinely cares about other people.  In grade school she stood up repeatedly for an autistic boy who was the butt of many cruel jokes.  Because Mack knows what it feels like to be alone and without friends, she has empathy for anyone in the same situation.  She truly seemed concerned for Hannah.

Still, the mother instinct to protect was in place.  “How do you know she can’t afford new clothes?”

For Mack the issue wasn’t the clothes or the money.  “Mom, she is so excited that we are doing this.  She even put on her MySpace page that some friends are taking her shopping.  Some of the kids at school are teasing us for doing this.  They think Hannah is weird.  But we don’t care.  We are going to do it anyway.”  The issue for Mack was that someone desperately needed some friends.

On Saturday the girls all met at Lisa’s house then walked together to Hannah’s house.  Lisa’s mom provided the transportation to the mall.  While at the mall they decided to let Hannah have a mini makeover.  In order for the makeover to be “free” they had to make a purchase.  Mack bought Hannah some eye shadow.  Then they visited some of their favorite stores.  Nikki and Becca pooled money in one store for a new outfit for Hannah, and then Mack and Lisa did the same in another store.

Mack was excited when she returned home from the outing.  “Hannah was sooooo happy!  She kept thanking us over and over.”

Hannah wore the new clothes to school on Monday and Tuesday.  Mack says that whenever Hannah sees any of the girls in the hall she runs up and gives them a hug and claims they are her new best friends.  I asked Mack if the other kids at school were still teasing and making fun of Mack and the others for taking Hannah shopping.  Mack says she hasn’t heard any negative comments.  She also says that she feels happier inside after having served Hannah.

I am so proud of my daughter and her friends and I am glad I didn’t stand in their way.  A new friend has been made, compassion has been developed, and a girl has been cheered.  The girls exhibited courage by not backing down to peer pressure to forget serving Hannah.  Not only was a good example set for the kids at school, a good example was set for me. 

The lessons I learned:  Don’t judge.  Serve anyway.  And don’t stand in the way of your kids if they are showing courage and taking the initiative to show compassion and empathy to someone else.

Lessons learned.  Lessons lived. 

Sometimes it is good for us to look back and remember the times we have been served by others.  I got that opportunity during Sunday School today as the instructor asked the class to share experiences of when our lives had been touched by others.  Many great stories were shared.

I immediately thought back to the time when my first marriage ended.  I was terrified, sad, and lonely.  I suddenly found myself a single mom to four kids who needed me to be strong.  My extended family, of course, was a huge support to me and provided much help.  But, the people who came to my mind during Sunday School today, are the neighbors who stepped up and served me during that difficult time–those who were not related to me, but chose to serve me anyway. 

There was the neighbor who stopped by with a fresh can of paint and said, “I noticed your front door trim needs to be painted.”  After he’d finished painting, he proceeded to fix my broken door bell as well.

Neighbors shoveled my walks when it snowed and cleared away broken tree branches after a particularly bad storm.  Twice during the Christmas season piles of anonymous gifts were left at our doorstep.  I received anonymous cashier’s checks in the mail with cheery notes telling me I was admired.  Once, a total stranger knocked on my door, handed me some cash, and said she’d been sent to give it to me.

One neighbor shared tomato and pepper plants with me so I could plant them in my own garden.  Another neighbor dropped by with fresh flowers and a written poem about hope and moving forward.  Some just dropped by to visit and offer encouragement.  When I started to work as a substitute teacher many wonderful neighbors offered their babysitting services so I wouldn’t have to pay for daycare for my son.  My girls were given free piano lessons for life by another neighbor.

When my disposal stopped working I called a neighbor to see if he knew how to fix it.  After he’d looked at it for a few minutes he said he’d be right back and left.  I thought he was going to get his tools.  Instead, he showed up with a brand new disposal and installed it for me.  He refused payment of any kind.  In fact, all of the people serving me did so without expecting compensation.  They served from the goodness of their hearts. 

We didn’t live in an area where people had a lot of worldly goods.  People in our area couldn’t boast of fancy houses, boats, or exotic trips.  Many of us struggled to make ends meet, yet when someone was in need there was no hesitation to help.  Those who served me in my need set a great example for me.  I want to be the type of person who doesn’t hesitate to serve, the type of person who sees a need and just takes care of it.  And I want my children to develop the same caring and compassionate traits as my former neighbors.

When a neighbor in our current neighborhood developed terminal cancer, the entire neighborhood rallied around the family.  Much help was given.  One family in the neighborhood came up with the idea of each family foregoing “neighbor gifts” at Christmas and donating what would have been spent on the gifts to the family in need.  We met at an “open house” to pool our offerings, eat some goodies, and then go caroling to the home of the sick man and present our donations as a neighborhood group.  I encouraged my kids to give some of their hard earned money to the cause and was gratified to see that all four did donate.  And they didn’t hold back, they gave more than I had thought they would.  I was glad for the opportunity we all had to serve someone else.      

I am grateful for the nudge to look back today at the times I have been served.  Being served by others has become some of the building blocks for my desire to give back.  It has increased my gratitude and faith in the general goodness of others and has renewed my desire to teach my children to serve, thus providing them building blocks to becoming compassionate and empathetic individuals.