The Value of Doing Small Things

“I’m not sick,” the old woman who had waved my car down said. 

This morning I got up early to take Brittany, my girlfriend, to City of Hope National Medical Center, not because of COVID-19 but because she had a regularly scheduled doctor visit for her cancer care. The facility was a ghost town, and the day before she had gotten an email saying she couldn’t bring a visitor with her. She would need to get screened for COVID-19 symptoms and I would have to wait outside. I was a little bummed, not only because I like being there with her but because I really wanted to get one of those infrared thermometer checks I’ve seen people get in TV news footage from Asia. 

We had been isolating for the past week and a half (it’s only been a week and a half?); her treatments suppress her immune system and my day job is at a coffee shop, which brings me into contact with hundreds of people. My coffee shop serves a kind of tea that people seem to believe has medicinal properties (it doesn’t. It has a lot of sugar in a hot liquid, that’s what’s making you feel better for 20 minutes), and so we were getting a lot of unwell customers through. I walked away from my shifts because I needed to be available for Brittany and I couldn’t risk getting infected by some rando looking for a Cold Buster.

The isolation hasn’t been hard for me – I’m an indoor kid – but what has been hard has been seeing this crisis happen and feeling sidelined. I don’t know how to be of service right now; I know that staying home is being of service, that giving up paychecks to remove myself from the chain of transmission is being of service, but it doesn’t feel like really being of service. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything when I fuck around in my house in sweats all day. 

In my brain I play out these scenarios of being heroic, of putting myself in harm’s way and getting the ‘rona, dying as my lungs fill with fluid and all the people who ever said bad things about me online being forced to eat their words and acknowledge I’m one of the Good Ones. I get these grandiose visions sometimes; two years ago I was out for a walk and I saw a dog run out onto Brand Boulevard, this very busy big road, and I had a momentary dream of running out and pushing the dog out of the way of speeding cars and myself getting creamed in the process. In my little self-centered fantasy I imagined my final thoughts, as I lay bleeding out on the pavement, turning to all the people who had ever wronged me or said mean things about me, and how bad they would feel when this story got out.

It probably goes without saying that these are the wrong reasons to want to do good in the world, but I’m human and these thoughts arise. I used to beat myself up about them, but now I accept them. Still, I’ve had this itch to do more, to be of more service. This feels like a pivotal moment in human history, and the idea that I’m going to sit it out while watching Tiger King feels… inadequate. 

Anyway, we went to the hospital and I putzed around in the empty gardens (it’s a nice facility out in Duarte) while Britt went inside. She got moved to a new treatment, one that will require her to self-administer an injection three times a week. Changing treatment, giving herself shots, a global pandemic – all of this combines to some anxiety, so we decided to drive up the San Gabriel Mountains, which loom directly over the town. We figured we could get a little fresh air, see some scenic beauty, stay socially distanced. 

We mapped a recreation area and drove up, past a lot of people walking this steep road up the mountain. When we got to the entrance the gate was locked, really heavily shut down, and so we turned the car around and began driving back. I was going to recommend a drive on the 2, up through the Angeles National Forest (this is all like 20 minutes from my apartment. LA is amazing), when this old woman on the side of the road waved at me. 

At first I thought she was being friendly – there’s been a lot of friendliness in the socially distanced streets lately, and I love it – but it became clear she was waving me down. 

“Can you help me?” she asked. “I walked all the way up here and now… I could use a ride down the hill.”

She quickly followed that up with: “I’m not sick.”

She was a white lady over 70, with a little hand-made looking sweater over her shoulders and a floppy hat on her head. She wore shorts and I could see thick spider-webby veins on her calves above her chunky white sneakers. She was clearly exhausted. It was an overcast morning, and maybe that was the only thing that kept her on her feet, that it wasn’t too hot out.

Maybe I should have thought about it more, but my response was immediate. “Hop in,” I said, and Brittany got in the back seat so this old lady could ride in the front. We drove her down the hill. 

She told me that she had wanted to see how far this park was from her home, and now she knew, she laughed. “Maybe I can skip my walk tomorrow, since this was so far today,” she said, with a slightly Scandinavian accent. “You can drop me off anywhere closer to the bottom,” she said.

I told her I would drive her home. She said she wished she could do something for me, and I told her she was – she was letting me feel useful. And it was true. I’m glad I drove her home, because it was damn far away – I cannot believe this old lady walked as far as she did. It was over two miles distant, all downhill, which meant she had done two miles uphill to get to where I ran into her. She didn’t quite know her way around the area, so it seemed like she was new to the neighborhood – we had to travel a ways before she was able to get her bearings based on landmarks.

Her place turned out to be a senior living facility for nuns. I believe my passenger was a nun. She got out of the car at the front gate (“You can’t come in,” she said. “We’re all elderly in here and they won’t let people near us.”) and said “God bless you” to us as Britt got back into the front seat. 

As we drove off I apologized to Britt. “I made that decision without consulting you,” I said. I let this stranger in the car, and while she didn’t seem sick, who knows what the situation was (but I have to say, I doubt a very sick person would have been able to do that walk!), and I know that Britt is at-risk.

“I would have done the same thing if I had been driving,” she told me, which is why I love her. I don’t know that I could be the kind of person who leaves an old lady on the side of the road, and I don’t know that I could be in love with someone who could.

When I told the lady that she was helping me by making me feel useful, I was being very honest. That’s what I have been feeling in quarantine – useless. And for just a few moments I could be helpful to someone else. It really wasn’t a big deal, except maybe in these fucked up times, but it was a thing I could do that justified my presence on the Earth for another day. It’s tempting to imagine big heroics, tying on a mask and volunteering my absolute lack of knowledge and experience with the truly sick and suffering, but that’s better left to the people who know what they’re doing. And dreaming of big heroics is a sure sign that your ego is out of control, and that rather than thinking of others you’re thinking of yourself.

This isn’t me trying to throw shade at anyone doing incredible feats of service. Doctors are dying because of their knowing exposure to COVID-19, and they are real heroes. But they probably didn’t wake up and say, “This is my chance to die and prove I’m a good person!” They probably woke up and did what was necessary in the moment, and the moment after that. We can all hope that, should a moment like that present itself to us, we’ll do the heroic thing, but wishing for it is narcissism. 

What we can do, right now, is small kindnesses. Little moments of compassion and support. Nobody’s going to write a book about your exploits helping your neighbor, but that isn’t why we do it. We do it to earn our spot another day.