I didn’t expect the ramen. The fruit leather caught me off guard as well.
Just a day earlier, my husband Mike had finished installing one of those little wooden houses for free books that have been popping up in front of houses across the country in recent years. But in a year where an estimated 50 million people in the United States may face hunger due to the effects of COVID-19, we thought we’d also fill ours with free food.
We loaded it up with a mixture of peanut butter, granola bars, E. Annie Proulx, tuna, Iris Murdoch, canned carrots, Celeste Ng, black beans and a collection of the historical fiction my 91-year-old mom cycles through quickly.
The next day, I posted a photo of our little house on a community Facebook page, inviting anyone to come take what they wanted. Like neighborhoods all over the world, the effects of the pandemic have come home to mine with people on our block who have lost jobs, are struggling to keep their small businesses afloat or have health issues and are unable to risk going to the grocery store.
When I checked on the little house that evening, many of the food items had already disappeared. But just a half hour later, when I went to restock it, someone else already had. The shelves were stuffed with ramen, applesauce, fruit leather and more.
It’s been happening almost every day since. Food will disappear — and then replenish itself. Sugar. Flour. Macaroni. One evening a jar of peanut butter disappeared and a few hours later, a stranger had replaced it with a different brand, as well as some spaghetti noodles. Earlier this week, we found a note in our mailbox with cash to help restock the little house. It was simply signed “Your friends and neighbors.”
It fills me with wonder. But then again, this kind of thing has been happening around this time of winter for the last 15 years.
It started with my oldest son, Phoenix. This December 3 marks his 16th birthday — an age of driver’s licenses, new facial hair, high school crushes and a prelude to adulthood.
Except, not for him.
Phoenix died of bacterial meningitis when he was only 7 months and 4 days old, when his hair was still as soft and wispy as silk and his cheeks as plump as a peach. All these years later, I still remember how his cheek felt against my lips. I hope I always do.
At his memorial service, our friend Rev. Cathryn Cummings encouraged us to let our love for our beautiful boy radiate out into the world. She nudged us to celebrate his birthdays and look for ways to honor him, the ripples of his life spreading into wider and wider circles of the joy and love he’d given us. “Death is not the final word,” she said. “Love is the final word.”
Five months later, on the devastating December day he should have been turning 1, I made cupcakes and took them to Phoenix’s grave, sang to him, kissed the grass over where he was buried — and went shopping. Mike and I had decided we’d “adopt” a child from a department store’s holiday giving tree and buy Christmas presents for someone the same age as Phoenix should have been. I would have given anything to be able to buy Christmas presents for my son; maybe we could do it for someone else’s.
It was the start of our new tradition: creating joy for others as a tribute to Phoenix on his birthday.
Over the years, friends have joined us and the circle has widened. Now, our tradition is to ask anyone who wants to help celebrate his birthday to do one small act of kindness for someone. Our best gift is when they tell us about it.
In the last 15 years, we’ve heard about hundreds of acts of generosity around the world, many by people who never even met Phoenix: warm socks collected for those without homes, toys for children with cancer in Uganda, groceries for paramedics, donations to families displaced by fire, mosquito nets for people threatened by malaria, restaurant tabs secretly picked up, donations to children’s organizations and so much more. Our beautiful son Gabriel, born two years after Phoenix died and now 13 years old, often uses his own money and buys food for people without. This year, we decided to install the little house — and through it, we’ve discovered the circle has widened to include perfect strangers.
The legacy of our boy goes on in these ways. Just as our friends showed up for us after he died, people are showing up now for each other. We all need each other. The devastation of COVID-19 and the last year has shown us more than ever how true that is.
In the darkest times, I have found, if you look hard for the light, sometimes you can find it. The juxtaposition of despair and acts of kindness perhaps makes it shine that much brighter. One does not cancel out the other; they exist together. And when we can’t find the light, maybe we can create it ourselves. Right now, as COVID-19 is skyrocketing with an estimated 13 million cases and 270,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, we need to find ways to take care of each other.
None of us knows how much we’ll touch the lives around us and the real impact a kind word or deed might have. Phoenix wasn’t destined to grow up to be the man I had dreamed he’d someday become. But his life has had lasting meaning.
Sometimes, I think of that first year when our friends and family began doing kind deeds in honor of Phoenix’s birthday. It was like a bell was rung. And the sound from that caused vibrations that set off other bells, reaching all around the world to envelop people and help them feel like they belong, like someone cares.
I hope it goes on for years to come. That’s my birthday wish for him this year.
Linda Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor living in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter at @Linda_Dahlstrom.