[You can read Part 1 here.]
It was 8:20 in the morning when I crossed the border into Utah. The sun was a cool yellow, and both of my sons—the baby and the four-year-old—were awake again, and both were whining. My two dogs had settled for the most part, but every once in a while the older one stood up on the passenger’s seat, turned a circle, and then settled back in the exact same spot just to remind me that he was there.
The desert stretched on either side of me. I floored the gas and held my breath, trying to will my little Honda up yet another mountain. As the road began to level, I spotted what I’d been wishing for: a quiet spot marked “View Area” with a small trail and a bathroom.
The parking lot was empty. As we pulled in for the first stop on our long journey home, I hoped we’d be alone. I was afraid that someone might ask me for a cigarette, or a dollar, and tell me his whole life story, or ask me for mine, or that some old lady would let a terrier hop out of her back seat. In this latter scenario, my own dogs would go ballistic, causing me to fall on top of my baby as they bolted for the highway; meanwhile my four-year-old would walk off a nearby cliff. I didn’t want that.
But somehow I managed to unload all the living beings from the car without incident. We walked together, the dogs pulling only a little, the morning air cool but not cold. Maybe we could do this after all.
From the view area, we looked over hills and blue sky. Another car pulled into the lot. A couple emerged, both of them round and middle aged. I held my breath, waiting to see if they had a dog.
“Got your hands full there,” the man called out to me. His wife was rifling through a cooler. Just as we reached our own car, she extended an arm in my direction, offering a zip-lock bag of peeled, hard-boiled eggs. “Will you take these?” she asked. “My sister-in-law packed too much food.”
“That’s really nice,” I said. The bag was ice cold.
I meant it. I hadn’t seen a restaurant in many miles. For breakfast, I had planned to keep passing crackers into little hands.
“Can I have one?” my son asked, and I was happy to hand him one, so that the lady would know I wasn’t planning to toss them out the window later. My son took a bite and the dogs crowded him. He held the egg above his head like a treat and laughed, taunting them. The dogs wagged their tails and panted. This was a problem we’d been working on all summer.
“Stop that!” I commanded, but it had no effect. The couple drove off.
Another car, a silver convertible, pulled in beside us. The driver was tall with a shiny bald head and a short beard. No dog, just clean leather seats. He was about to see me lose it with my son. I grabbed the egg from his hands, split it in half and gave one half to each of the dogs.
My son wailed. “But I’m so so hungry!”
“And I’m so so angry that you don’t ever listen and you always tease the dogs.”
I wondered what the bald man thought of us. I could feel him a few feet behind me. When I turned around, he had his wallet out. Oh shit, I thought. He’s going to try to give me money. And in one long second, I weighed my options. I could turn him down, say “Oh, that’s all right,” as I instinctively do so often when friends offer help. If I did that, an awkward battle might ensue, or perhaps he’d turn his eyes back to his wallet as he returned the money. Instead, I decided I would take it.
“Put this in your gas tank,” he told me, handing me a folded-up bill. “You’ve got a ways to go.”
I thanked him, stuffed the bill in my pocket, and clipped my kids into their car seats. I handed my son another egg, my own generosity restored. Once settled in the driver’s seat, I pulled out the bill. There were two, actually. He had given me forty dollars.
I’ve since told this story to friends and they’ve all said the same thing: “He must have thought you were a battered wife.”
I had the same thought initially. But upon reflection, I’m pretty sure that he was just a guy with money in his wallet, and money in the bank, who saw a frazzled parent and decided the transaction would bring us both joy. He did it not because he thought he had to, but because he could.
So many times since that day, I’ve remembered that moment, before he had even offered the money, when I decided to receive it. I remind myself what that felt like, saying yes to someone’s kindness.
About an hour after I accepted the money, I pulled into a gas station and filled my tank. It came to $39.84.