This story appears in The Right Words at the Right Time volume 2: Your Turn. It is one of 101 inspiring stories.
When I was 15 years old, my mom was hospitalized for two weeks, undergoing surgery for severe back pain. Because my two older sisters no longer lived at home, I was suddenly the “woman of the house.” I desperately wanted my dad to think I was doing a good job, so I was very careful to be helpful and always do the right thing. That included making meals. Ironically, my dad, a quiet man, would have been pleased if I simply made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner. But I wanted my mom to know that everything was okay on the home front, so I cooked.
One night while I was preparing dinner, I noticed that one of the burners on the stove didn’t light when I turned the knob. 'I’ll ask Mom about this when I visit her tomorrow,' I thought to myself, figuring my dad didn’t know much about anything in the kitchen.
The next day, Saturday, was chilly and rainy. Despite the bad weather, I decided to walk to the hospital. Once inside, I dried myself off and sat down to talk with my mom. As sheets of rain pounded against the window in her room, I told her about my week, the meals I’d been cooking, and how I was doing a good job taking care of Dad while she was away from home.
Then, casually, I mentioned that one of the burners on the stove wasn’t working. My mom’s reaction was immediate and scary.
“Are you trying to burn the house down while I’m here in the hospital?” Mom snapped. “Go home right now and ask the superintendent to fix the pilot light in the stove! Do I have to take care of everything myself ?”
Furious and ashamed of myself, I stormed out of her hospital room shouting, “I’m trying to take care of things while you’re gone! I’m never going to visit you again!”
I bolted into the elevator, tears streaming down my face. It was only when I got to the first floor and walked to the front door that I realized the intensity of the downpour. The rain had gotten much worse, and I had left my umbrella in Mom’s hospital room. There was no way I was going back up there! So I stepped into the rain and began my walk home, crying all the way.
Within a quarter of a block, my clothes were already soaked through to my skin—and I had three more blocks to go. I felt so alone. Mom’s hospitalization had frightened me, and I’d been doing my best to be helpful. But, once again, I obviously hadn’t done enough! I was doing it all wrong! About a block from my apartment building, I noticed a man coming up the street, carrying an umbrella. He saw me, too, and hurried over.
“Looks like you’re getting wet,” he said to me. “Would you like to get under my umbrella?”
I took him up on his offer and we walked in silence. Less than a minute later we were outside my apartment building. I looked up at him.
"Thank you," I said. The man smiled at me, nodded, and went on his way.
It all happened in just a moment, but I have thought about it for more than 40 years. In the middle of my distress,a complete stranger had reached out to me an offered help. The gesture was small, the words few, and yet they had given me comfort when I most needed it.
I have tried throughout my life to extend my own "umbrella" when others have seemed in need. If this stranger could transform my despair with such a simple act of kindness, maybe I could do the same.
I walked into the building and saw our superindendent. I told him about our stove, and we went with me to take a look. Within moments the pilot light was lit.