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Random Acts of Kindness

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This weekend, I rode to Rhode Island to attend the funeral service of Ann Lyons Nugent, one of the kindest, sweetest people I have ever met. She was the mother of my best friend James, and throughout much of my young life, was like a second mother to myself, my brother Tom, and another friend of ours. The four of us to this day consider ourselves to be brothers rather than friends, and it is part due to the manner in which our families accepted each of us into their own. Such acceptance and such love does not come easily, which is why it was to hard to hear that Mrs. Nugent – I could never bring myself to address her directly as Ann even when she said it was okay for me to do so – has passed away. 

I learned of her passing just before I was to attend this year’s NAILBA conference, and as a result could not attend this prestigious industry gathering. I often spend time at industry events thinking about larger issues and larger questions. And so I found myself doing much the same this weekend. It was strange to see such old friends at this gathering, some of whom I had not seen in many years, since they collectively moved to California. One of the things that struck me were how tall the grandchildren had gotten. Some of them are the age of my own kids, but when you’re the one who is raising them, you don’t get hit by how fast they grow up the same way you do when you see a friend’s child after a period of time. The same thing is happening to you; it’s not like time is passing at different speeds for different people, but somehow you notice it more when it’s the other guy.

I thought that my brothers and I have entered that part of our lives where we start making the long, slow goodbye to the generations before us. We try to prepare in case one of us make an unexpected departure, but barring such a catastrophe, our role now is to raise our little ones and help them understand that the passing of their aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers is just a part of life itself. It hurts when we must say goodbye, but it would have hurt so much more had we never had the opportunity to say hello. 

The thing about saying goodbye to our friends and loved ones, as inevitable as it is, is that it gives us time to reflect on our own lives by way of reflecting on those that have ended. In the case of Mrs. Nugent, I could not help but think this: as a journalist, it is my job to discuss what is going on, to point out problems, to uncover things that some would rather remain hidden, to inform, to report. In doing this, I often get a cance to see the uglier side of life. Greed, dishonesty, callousness, and more. It is a main reason why so many journalists are so cynical; they see the worst in people every day, and after a while you begin to think that’s all there is. That even when you see the good, it’s just a front, or it is qualified by some unseen bad. It is not a particularly healthy attitude, but being in this business, it is impossible not to adopt it, even if only by a little.

Having said that, let me say this about Mrs. Nugent: I don’t have a single bad thing to say about her. Not one.

When we lose someone, we tend to sanctify them by choosing only to remember that which makes the pain of their passing easier to bear. Mrs. Nugent made that as easy as it could be for those who must carry on without her, by merit of her character. Some people commit random acts of kindness. Mrs. Nugent lived her life as if it was all one single, big random act of kindness.

If only we were all so lucky to have somebody like that in our lives. Heck, if only we were so good that we could be that person in other’s lives.

Not every passing is, in the grand scheme of things, as quiet, as dignified, as peaceful and as gentle as Mrs. Nugent’s was. The way she died was almost as if it was a parting gift to her family, for it could have been so much worse, so much more prolonged, so much more tragic. In dying, she gave to those who loved her most the shock of loss, true, but the knowledge that she left this world with all of the grace and dignity that she commanded while she was still in it. That has been a great comfort to those who knew her. 

Not all passings are thus. And once again, I am left to think about this industry, and what it is meant to do. How it can never, ever remove the pain of a lost loved one, but how it can provide security for those who need it at a time when they are left to fend for themselves in the worst way possible. I have often remarked about the nobility of that charge, and I will do so again: this is a noble business. Sometimes it acts ignobly, and sometimes it focuses more on the numbers of its business than on the humanity of it. But not always, and in more cases than can be counted, not when it matters.

Just as I would rather not imagine a world that never had a Mrs. Nugent in it, I would rather not imagine a world without this industry. For all of its setbacks, for every way in which it could do better, let us not lose sight of this most crucial fact: that it is there immeasurably improves all of our lives. And for that, I am deeply thankful.


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