The Room Of Kindness
The room was filled with kindness itself.
As we walked into Aldin’s Tea Rooms, a long, slender arm was quickly extended upward to me in greeting and I shook and held the smooth unresponsive hand of an older man who smiled back at me and silently pointed to his prominent lapel button. I leaned in for a closer look: “Ah — Her Majesty’s 60th Jubilee — very good!” I exclaimed. Someone else at the large round table of disabled customers and their caregivers asked: “Another pal of yours Charlie?”
We spotted the last vacant table across the room and made our way among the dozen or so other customers — sitting down with a view toward the corner entrance and, through large windows flanking either side, back into the street. But, for the next few minutes, no one entered or left the café.
The simple, almost cream-colored room was bright and alive with conversation and greetings between tables; small talk passed between the old woman next to us and the caregiver of a gentlemen in a blue jumper smiling unceasingly from his wheelchair — an open-mouthed smile framed by the small wooden pickets on either side that were the last of his teeth.
At the larger table, loud scrawking came from a tall gangly woman who then turned and looked me in the eye, and, making a stroking motion down her chin, gave a cheery, “thumbs up” approval of my beard.
Photography was out of the question in the same way it would be in the midst of communal prayer. Somehow, everyone in the room, including us, was aware and interacting with all the others. We were not invisible observers as often happens, but immediately became part of the moment; bathed in that special pleasure a friend once described by saying “it’s good to be among friends – even if they are not your friends…”
And, it was good, indeed.
For a little while, all things weary in mind or body were set free. We knew each other and were joined together by a look or a smile; a few words or a gesture. Forbearance and patience, hard-learned lessons and loneliness, healthy and crippled minds, ruined speech and broken bodies, laughter and silence — all rose up and made the air radiant with the everyday tenderness of simply being human together.
The woman next to us, her curled auburn hair thinning and wispy, watched quietly and acknowledged occasional “hellos” until she was served an impressive portion of beans on toast that, immediately, for me, will forever define the dish itself. Immediately she fell to, eating with earnest purpose and focus — her fork clutched from the left and knife unvarying from the right in proper British fashion. As the party on their morning outing from assisted living began to mobilize and depart, she stopped, looked up straight ahead and said quietly: “We must remember to be grateful.”
With the day-trip group leaving, we decided to move on as well. But I stopped briefly at her table to thank her for speaking of gratitude. Her name was Ann, and she replied: “Well! Some countries don’t take care of their people — do they now?” and then talked quickly on with clarity and softness of her sister who had had two “normal” children and two “disabled” children – all within 5 years of each other. “Both were blind. The poor dears had to wear helmets because they would hurt themselves. It was terrible to see how they frightened the other children whose parents did not help them understand. Chrissie died when she was nine, Robert I think so too…”
I asked Ann if the group before us came here often and she said they did, but they also went other places: “to give the people a variety of outings. I think there is a home or places nearby where they live…”
By this time additional wheelchairs had been retrieved, everyone accounted for and safely maneuvered out the door or guided along with a loving hand carefully threaded through the unsteady arm.
Just as we moved to the door, a small, round-faced and perfectly dressed finch-like woman came in, sat down primly close to the entrance and the character of the shop and the associations of all present began taking a new form. By the time we were out again under the low grey sky of Market Harborough, “our” Aldin’s was a different place and time altogether.
The luminous moment now remains only in my heart — but for that moment I am, mindful of Ann’s words, very grateful.