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The Gift of Kindness

It was January of 2014 and I was living blocks away from Brooklyn College in South Brooklyn, just off of the Q train en route to Coney Island. This was where I was receiving my Masters in Painting at the time. I was one year into the program, had moved to Brooklyn from Berkeley, California, and my neighborhood was anything but charming. Trash was pervasive, and my nearest grocery store was the produce section at the Target in Flatbush. I didn’t know Brooklyn well at all, especially because life was spent painting in the studio or in lectures at the college. The earnest environmentalist in me was searching for grounding; I’d often stand outside to draw the autumn leaves on the ground, drifting down from the trees on campus. But I was so malnourished. My housemate had cockroaches and she didn’t speak English. My diet was that of a student: mac and cheese. I would spend hours in every direction searching for parks that felt expansive.

Finally I had found Prospect Park, created by the same designers of Manhattan’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It was as vast as I had dreamed of. I knew I needed to live nearby this beautiful place. I had been asked to be a caretaker of an elderly man named Paul. The home of Paul was just short of Prospect Park. I was asked through a Brooklyn family network database but had turned the job down because I just couldn’t find the time.

Thankfully, in the dead of winter of 2014, a letter was sent to my house in South Brooklyn stating that the house was going to be bulldozed, and we had a month’s notice to pack our things up and leave. At the time I remember thoughts buzzing through my head of both panic and relief. Where would I go? I could ask my colleagues for help but they were all struggling too. New York, I believe, is full of good Samaritans. People who live there know this. But everyone I knew was up to their necks in homework or faced with personal daily struggle.

Weeks had passed and I had looked at several rooms I couldn’t afford. I had decided I would see about the elderly man, see how he was, and talk to his daughter in the off chance they needed help months after our last contact. I had expected to supplement my income enough to find a better place to live, some place with a cleaner sink, fewer cockroaches. I walked two miles up the road to the house of the elderly man in Ditmas Park. I knocked on the door of their big red house, ragged but beautiful. His daughter answered the door. I broke down and cried; I told her I felt homeless. She was a therapist; I must have known this at the time. I remember so clearly feeling like a lost puppy–rained on, dirty, and without a loving nest. Johanna took me in her home. We talked. She made me coffee and I hung out with her 85-year-old father, who in just a few minutes made me laugh. He was quirky, full of wonderful eccentricities. He loved ice cream at any hour and Johanna believed in ice cream as a source of joy, especially at his age. His room was painted by Johanna’s daughter, with whimsy; white stars and solid teal blue beneath them. Johanna needed help. I felt helpless and wanted to fill myself with love. After several hours, she told me I could live with her as an artist on “scholarship.” We agreed I would be the companion for her father, and I would live in her wonderful, spirited home for free. Her daughter Naomi was also a bright star. I moved in right away. We had long talks before dawn, and her father Paul and I quickly became good friends. I loved them so much. I couldn’t believe what I was given. She didn’t have to help me.

I share with you this story as it is a constant reminder to me, and I hope it can be a reminder for you too. Sometimes, we have to hit a point of desperation to know we need outside help. I grew up with my mother reciting certain Christian proverbs; and this one is strikingly fitting: It is when we lean on God that He is there to help and heal.

Though Johanna wasn’t of my religious background, her actions were what Jesus would have done. She opened the door for someone–desperate, poor, and utterly lost in life. It was a turning point in my life there in Brooklyn. My life went from coping to full of joy, and I was now inspired to wake up in the morning to have several persons to care for.

It is also important to remember that the path of kindness, as illustrated in my story, is not a simple or easy path. Paul began to get older, more tired of life. We had to watch him suffer. But his life was one worth waking up for.

Joelle Provost writes from Northern California.

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About Joelle Provost

Joelle Provost

writes from Northern California.

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