Back in the late summer of 2002, when Shawn and I were falling in love, we had a night when we were laying around my apartment, talking about life. My head was in his lap, and he brushed my hair with his fingers. We sat on tatami mats, their smell slightly permeating the room, and the hum of the air conditioner came on and off throughout our conversation. We took turns asking each other the big questions.
“What’s your biggest regret?” I asked him at one point.
He took a deep breath, and then surprised me with his answer. “When I was in 8th grade, I was at a dance, and there was a girl there who asked me to dance. I thought she was nice, so I said yes, and we started dancing. But then I looked up and saw my friends laughing at me, so I stopped dancing with her.”
I looked up at him. His eyes met mine.
“I think about that a lot. It must have really hurt her feelings. I never apologized. But I remember the look on her face, and I bet she still remembers it too.”
I told him that I was sure she’d gotten over it, and he didn’t need to worry about it, but he insisted that it was a cruel thing to do. He should have been kind, he insisted. That memory stayed with him.
I loved everything about that story, especially his reaction to it as an adult. I thought about it often in our marriage. Even as he was dying, Shawn reminded me about that mistake – and about the larger point, which was the importance of being kind.
Shawn, of course, was kind to so many people during his lifetime. He mentored countless people in his field. He always filled up the gas tank in my car. He was softer with the kids than I was. When I left on vacation with the kids, he always cleaned the house from top to bottom because he knew I liked that. The list could go on.
But Shawn was also human, and he made mistakes. He made this one at the 8th grade dance, and he made others in his lifetime, of course. Still, he wanted to provide an example for our kids that being kind to others was the most important thing you could do. That’s why I brought it up in my eulogy of him.
Last week, I was reading this article in the Atlantic, about how the most important thing you can do is to teach your kids the value of kindness. It struck me, and made me think about Shawn’s 8th grade dance story. Would one of my kids make the same mistake one day? Without their father, would they miss a lesson in kindness that I forgot to teach them?
I think my kids are great, and have shown kindness in many ways to others. But they are getting older, and Claire is on the cusp of adolescence. The choice to be kind is going to become harder, that I know for sure.
And what my children don’t see every day is an example of a couple that shows kindness to each other. Not just the big kindnesses, like cleaning up the bathroom when the other person has the stomach flu. But the small kindnesses, like washing out the other person’s wine glass after you both have a drink, or reprogramming the thermostat so the other person won’t be cold. I could tell my children over and over again to be kind, but without that example in front of them, it’s hard to really show them.
But they don’t see it in a partnership. They don’t see how it is the million daily acts of kindness that add up to a happy marriage.
I may never get remarried. But I’ll tell you this – if I do, it will be to someone who is kind. Because if my kids are going to observe another relationship, it’s going to be one where they see daily kindness in action.
I wish they could have witnessed Shawn’s kindness for longer. I wish they could have seen how we worked together as a couple. I wish that was more solidly part of their working memory.
Sometimes, however, I see it in their eyes. Yes, you can learn kindness. But I think, at least a little, they carry a piece of Shawn’s spirit with them. And that means that they carry a bit of his kindness too.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.