(Photo: author's own)
This year, Friday 17th February is Random Acts of Kindness Day. But I would like to make the case that for some members of our society - such as my disabled son - kindness from strangers is an every day part of life. It always has been, in all of his 21 years.
In an age of austerity cuts and the resurgence of prejudices, I feel it's important to say that many people of every political persuasion and indeed none are routinely compassionate and caring, every day of every year. In our family's direct experience, kindness is the norm. Sure, we get tactless stares and thoughtless comments - but these are cancelled out by generous deeds and unexpected favours, from all directions.
My son Tim has always looked disabled. He has always needed a wheelchair. From the age of 16 he has needed oxygen therapy, which means a cylinder, tube and small mask wherever he goes. There is no question that Tim looks different from the norm - whatever that might be. If Tim's disabilities were invisible, I understand from other special needs parents that his experience might have been less rosy. I can only write of our own experience. And that is, on balance, clearly positive.
When Tim was younger (see photo above), strangers would routinely offer him cuddly toys which were sometimes bigger than him. Countless others - including the most unlikely characters - would give him smiles. I remember wheeling Tim into a rather rough-looking pub in Cornwall. The proprietor was a middle-aged woman with a craggy face - austere and tough. She looked at Tim. Her face broke into a wide, kind smile. She became utterly transformed... actually beautiful. Thousands of others have smiled at Tim, but she stays in my mind because her kindness transformed her so completely.
At this point I have to confess that Tim has jumped many queues, and got into places without paying - because kind officials have ushered him through. From Blackpool Pleasure Beach to Disneyland, Tim has received VIP treatment. He even once got into the VIP enclosure at Brands Hatch to see the British Grand Prix without flashing a ticket. In some of these places the policy has been an official one. In others, it's come down to the kindness of an individual at the gate.
When Tim was 14, he became very poorly while on holiday in Florida. We were offered family accommodation at the local Ronald Macdonald House near Jacksonville Hospital, where Tim battled for his life in Intensive Care. His sister remembers receiving at least one present every day, and I remember that caring strangers booked up six months ahead for the privilege of cooking fabulous meals for all who stayed there. I'm personally sure that the kindness we received contributed to Tim's speedy recovery.
Tim's own attitude has to be mentioned. He smiles easily: a wide, generous smile that tells strangers he enjoys life and he doesn't judge others in any way. He is visibly comfortable with the fact that he receives help from people. Again and again I have witnessed that Tim's fun-loving and relaxed outlook makes it easy for strangers to be kind around him.
Advocates of equal rights for disabled people - and I am one of these - might argue that disabled people don't want special treatment. They just want equal treatment.
Of course that's true. Maybe all these favours could seem patronising. But I don't choose to look at it that way. The truth is, being a physically, mentally and health-challenged young person is unfathomably difficult, for the individual and the whole family. Tim lives at the edge of what is medically possible. So I look on him, and others like him - as something of a hero. And it's perfectly reasonable for society's heroes to receive accolades. The key is to accept the well-meant gestures gracefully.
This kindness even extends to those who care for him. Not so long ago Tim and I were sitting in the square next to Bath Abbey when a woman came up to me, holding a bouquet of scented flowers.
"These are for you," she said to me. "Because I think what you're doing is amazing."
Recently Tim celebrated his 21st birthday with a restaurant meal. His friend and carer Bonnie was busy helping Tim to eat his puréed version of Sunday roast. Her gentle patience was witnessed by a stranger in the bar. The young man secretly delivered an envelope to our group, to be handed to Bonnie after he had left. Our group got the timing wrong, and Bonnie received the envelope while the man was still present. Inside was a £20 note. Visibly moved, Bonnie went to thank the man, and the two hugged.
That hug between two kind strangers is what Random Acts of Kindness are all about. Who benefitted most: Bonnie, the kind stranger, or even the rest of us, looking on? The truth is, kindness given generously and accepted with genuine appreciation connects and benefits us all.