“Do you mind if I sit here?”

I looked up and saw a woman in her late 40s carrying a tray of lunch.

Yes, I wanted to say. Yes, I do mind. Actually. I chose to sit here, away from everyone else, at the furthest corner of the room, on a table on my own for a reason.

“Of course not,” I replied. As you do. As we do.

“Am I disturbing your peace?” she asked as she set down her tray and slid herself onto the hard chair.

“I have a two-year old at home,” I replied, somewhat bitterly, I think, in retrospect. “Peace is a rare commodity.”

She took a sip of her water, sustenance being pretty basic at these events, even on a Saturday, and looked me straight in the eye.

“Did you have a difficult time?” she asked, gently.

Still on the defensive, I went into list mode: “9-month hyperemesis, pre-eclampsia, retained placenta, massive haemorrhage, strep B infection, and post-natal depressions. So you could say that!”

And then this stranger told me her story, in bold strokes, just enough information for me to understand why she was talking to me. She had almost died during the birth of her first child, and the baby had been difficult.

“It took me years to get over it,” she said, “and I didn’t realise but I was blaming her. She is now 19 and we barely speak. It affected our relationship so badly.” Her tone was kind, matter of fact, but her eyes were sad. “Those early years must have been more important than I thought.”

She was so gentle, so concerned for me, and I could feel myself, usually wound as tightly as a coil, ready to respond to yet another onslaught of the terrible twos, experiencing something different. A kind of out of body feeling, a recognition, a connection. This genuine compassion from a stranger, albeit a distant colleague in the same university, disarmed me.

“She is so difficult,” I murmured, abandoning my lunch. “She head-bangs, crashes her forehead against the baby gates in frustration. She has delayed speech, is never still and never happy….it is so exhausting.”

“You were pleased to be asked to work on a Saturday, for a chance to get away?”

I nodded, ashamed at her words and yet amazed at her understanding.

“I know.” She reached her hand across the table and squeezed mine.

Looking back on that day, 18 years later, following an interesting twitter conversation about kindness, I realise that my guardian angel as I have come to think of her, who had advised me to seek counselling which had in turn changed my relationship with my daughter quite astoundingly, acted with genuine kindness. She recognised someone in a state of emotional pain and she acted courageously in approaching me and using brave personal disclosure to connect with me. She was sensitive, gentle and caring and suggested a way forward I might wish to explore. She confirmed that I had had a horrible time, where others had not done so. Her recognition gave me permission to see that I had suffered and so indeed had my daughter.

She changed my life.

Kindness is a process of giving, to another, of being focused on them, their needs, their situation, and being able to see, hear and be with them, gently, with care, understanding and compassion. That’s pretty heroic. We usually know what kindness is, we recognise it when we are on the receiving end of it and are inordinately grateful for it whether it is a cup of tea in a frazzled day or a life-changing stranger appearing out of the blue. Kindness can transform.

What is troubling is that in the caring professions, and here I include all aspects of healthcare, social and psychological services and education, kindness is very often at a premium for those who deal in kindness as part of their job.

Working with the public is like a washing machine. Whether we deal with patients, students, clients, people come to us, with needs – medical, social and educational needs, and we hope that by going through the ‘wash’ of our state sponsored interventions, they will emerge fresh, replenished. But for every clean wash there is a filter full of dirt.   And it is us, the educators, the clinicians, the social services, the other staff involved in caring for fellow members of our society, who act as that filter, who take load after load, day after day, gradually silting up, and slowing down, pulled under with the weight of the dirt.

Who cares for the carers has long been a valid question a friend of mine asks.  At this time of year, when giving is so prevalent and at this time in 2020 when most public sector workers are on their knees – police doing extra shifts, hospitals and GP practices over capacity and school and university teachers floored with the amount of risk and work they face, we need to make a resolution. If the system is not able or willing to care for the carers, we need to start doing so.

My life was changed when an unknown colleague from my university sat beside me, asked me some questions and shared her story. I had never seen her before and have never seen her since. But I am so grateful to her for her courage and her kindness. Even though we might be at rock bottom, please, whenever we can, let’s make an effort to look out for each other, to take our courage and use it. Such kindness can have eternally positive consequences.

It may even be life changing.