Random Acts of Kindness: A Valentine for Valerie
I am in the process of putting together a book to chronicle the random acts of kindness I’ve been the recipient of over the years. Many kind acts were performed by perfect strangers that literally saved my life or got me through some of the most difficult personal challenges imaginable. Others were performed by a core of longtime friends who have stuck by me over the years when I sincerely reached out for their help. This valentine is for my most special friend.
Valerie and I were introduced by a college friend in the spring of 1975. She was 21 and I was 25 and we connected right away and had a great time together. My summer plans were already set when we hooked up and they couldn’t be changed. I had gone to California the previous summer and made plans to spend the entire upcoming summer in L.A. I had even sent money ahead for a summer rental and I had high school, college and close family friends living out there. It was the ‘70s, when things were free and loose and everybody was “California Dreaming.” I’d be staying right down the street from where the movie “Car Wash” was filmed.
So we made the most of it. She was a breath of fresh air, then I was gone. But we never forgot our time together or our attraction to one another. When the fall came we dated and hung out whenever we could. We were in different schools but I can remember her always being willing to come to my games and enthusiastically support me from the stands wherever I played. We literally had a secret love affair unbeknownst to most of our friends. I knew then she was special.
I was interested in radio and records as a career and Valerie would share with me stories of her experiences performing summers on the recreation department’s concert circuit. So many of D.C.’s future entertainers started out touring inner-city playgrounds with her as part of the mayor’s summer jobs program. She was a member of a local rock/funk band Cummings Electric Sound. Valerie was tall, pretty, sweet and just a down to earth uptown girl. But it was her gentle, kind, and easy-going spirit that won me over back then and again 30 years later.
Soon I was off to my first job in broadcasting. We lost touch as I moved around the country losing phone books and didn’t reunite until I returned to work at a local radio station in 1983. She was now with the U.S. Park Service after the National Council of Negro Women turned over the Frederick Douglass home where she’d been working when we met due to the lack of funding necessary for its upkeep and survival. She would give me up close and personal tours. We renewed our arrangement. But now we were both in other relationships and couldn’t cleanly break free of them. Then I was gone again to Hampton Roads for five years or so for a gig. With the problems mounting in my life we lost touch again.
[Read more: The agony and the ecstasy of Wendell Williams]
It may be hard to conceive of this in the age of cell phones and the internet, but long-distance calls were very expensive during those times. Trying to have a long-distance romance could cost hundreds of dollars a month. We used to say “nobody wins but the phone company.”
It was 30 years before we would lay eyes on each other again. Even though I worked back in D.C. on several occasions somehow we never ran into each other.
Our journey was like one of my favorite stories the nuns would read to us, the saga of Evangeline. In that epic poem, two star-crossed lovers became separated during the forced removal of the Acadian people from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War. They looked for one another all their lives. At times during their life-long search, they had even been on the same riverboat one boarding while the other was getting off, unable to know it because of the crowds. They never reunited until they were both older she had become a nun and Evangeline’s lover died in her arms.
In late 2012, I tried Facebook for the first time and I almost never checked my page and in fact, I had nothing but bad things to say about it. I felt it was a tremendous waste of time. Then one day out of the blue there she was.
We talked for hours during that first conversation, catching up on the missing years of our lives. We both had been through a lot and been changed forever by bad marriages, bad relationships, all kinds of abuse and poor choices. But there was no judgment. She told me about having to raise other family members’ kids, about sacrifices she made to keep her extended family together and about the personal toll it had taken. But she was open and honest with her situation and me with mine. We both had baggage and after we met again face-to-face every following moment was like it was 1975 again.
We were 40+ years older and didn’t look the same. But in our hearts and minds, we acted like we were in ‘75. From that day on, even when we were taking a “break,” we talked every day no matter where I was, traveling or who I was with. We averaged about 5-to-10 calls and texts each day over the last six years. We agreed we would always be.
One of the things about Valerie is she was generous to a fault. She would give anybody literally the shirt off her back and time after time I was blown away by her unselfishness. It would be nothing for her to give something to every person asking for money when we were out. She paid no attention to my warnings of what people might do with the funds, telling me in a nice way to mind my business. That was Val.
We would eat and split the check and would argue over how big of a tip to leave. Val would leave a great tip even if the service was lousy, which I had great difficulty understanding. I think the tip should match the level of service. But she didn’t feel that way. She always asked me, “What if that waitress or waiter is taking care of two or three children and needs the tip money?”
Valerie was a big Street Sense Media supporter after watching what the paper had done for me. I would visit her and notice copies of the same edition of the paper. When I questioned why she did not ask me for one she would respond “I wanted to support all those vendors because I knew what the paper had done for you.” That was my beautiful-spirited Val.
One day I had the chance to see her generosity first hand. It was early in my return to recovery and I was working hard on a less-than-lucrative paying job. When I was able to put together about $1,000 to buy a recovery car I was so excited to have a car that I was ripe for the taking. I went out and test drove a car that was unbelievable and turns out a deal too good to be true. I even went against the advice of a friend who drove me that day who told me, “Don’t buy that car I’ve got a bad feeling about that guy selling it.” But the price was right and I drove off in a very clean used Camry with low miles thousands of dollars under the Blue Book value.
I proudly walked into the DMV and they gave me the customary 30-day tags to get the car inspected and through emissions. And then things went south. I drove my car to the inspection station and was so excited to be able to get my permanent tags when the gentleman inspecting my car approached me with a very disturbed look on his face and delivered the bad news. “Sir, this car will never pass inspection and it’s actually unsafe for you to drive it away.” The undercarriage was rusting out. So were the floorboard and most of the front suspension. When I test drove the car I had noticed a strange noise but the guy selling the car said it was just something that needed to be tightened or adjusted. And being hot-to-trot to get the car I wanted to believe him and never got on the ground to take a look myself.
The mechanic told me whoever sold me the car knew it had been in a flood. I couldn’t believe it. As you can imagine, there was not an aspirin large enough to relieve the pain I was feeling. I had spent every dime I had. And then in rode Val. A few days later she just stopped by and out of the blue handed me an envelope and said, “Go buy a car.” Pay me back when you can.
I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Where’d you get this money from?” And, of course, she told me in her way that was none of my business. I can’t remember how long it took but I am proud to say I paid her back every penny.
The second Random Acts of Kindness story I published, back in 2017, was about one of my supporters who helped fix that Camry I had been making “Band-Aid” repairs on. Now you know how I got the car to begin with: a Random Act of Kindness from my friend Val.
Over the next few years Valerie and I continued to hang tough, she stuck by me even after the failed engagement and I considered her my one and only go-to person. I wanted very much to treat her like the special person she was. She had shared with me that she had never been on an airplane, even on a vacation or cruise — and I wanted to be the person to take her. She more than deserved it.
At home she struggled just to have a quiet moment alone. Our day trips became what she looked forward to. From Norfolk to Baltimore to Frederick to Southern Maryland we rode. If I had an out of town training she came. Our last one was to the mountains to see the leaves changing colors and she was so happy for it to be just me and her. We had also made plans for a trip to Atlantic City this month because she was secretly afraid to fly.
I mentioned the toll that trying to take care of so many people had on Val. She was worn thin with stress from constantly being underwater financially and robbing Peter to pay Paul. She had started to make some legal preparations to get some relief from those worries and the pressures those obligations were causing and we were actually making plans to move in together in an apartment that we both could afford with our anticipated retirements. And when her children and others she was responsible for had moved on and finally were on their feet she would be free to live her life with me. So I waited.
At times upwards of eight or nine people would be living at her two-bedroom apartment. She even moved in her ex-husband with his daughter and granddaughter at the end of his life. That was Val — selfless to a fault. I came to accept who she was and stopped trying to get her to change. She once said I just selfishly wanted her all to myself (and I did) and said doing things for others gave her purpose in life. It was her mission. I made the decision that day to always be there to help her any way I could.
In late October I began to receive weird emails from places I had never contacted about employment. I had given up on finding satisfying employment in my field of substance abuse treatment when l got a weird email trying to confirm an appointment for an interview. I never replied because of my fear it was a phishing scheme or virus. That’s when I called and she told me I had an interview at such and such date, time, and place — which I knew nothing about. It turns out that Val, always my biggest supporter of whatever my latest idea was, had posted my resume, even filled out applications on my behalf for several employment sites. That was Val.
I was hired and started Nov 1. and it turns out that this job is the best opportunity I’ve had to grow, learn, and practice my craft since I joined this fight against the opioid epidemic in 2013. Another Random Act of Kindness by my Valerie. And as time has gone by I have found so many others she has performed without her even mentioning them. Her whole life was filled with them.
After about two months on my new job l began to allow myself to dream of a possible future for us together, taking her places and doing things she never could because she focused so much of her resources on helping others.
On Dec. 29, after a few days together, she told me how happy and hopeful she was and that spending time with me was the reason and she was alright with an arrangement that most people would not understand. We hugged long and tight and got in our cars and we both drove away in opposite directions as we talked on the phone all the way to our destinations. We texted back and forth throughout the rest of the day. At 10:23 p.m.we had what ended up being our last conversation by text. She told me her prediction for my next day’s paper sales income as she always does and we said goodnight.
Then at 2:45 a.m. life as l knew it was forever changed. I got a call from Valerie’s oldest daughter saying she had passed away at of a massive stroke. I found out later she was probably dead when she hit the floor. I screamed at the top of my lungs and crying out to God in hopes that this was not true. I wanted so badly for somebody to call back and say she was revived and at a local hospital. That was possible, right? She had already survived a heart attack and drove herself to the E.R.
I don’t know how I did it but I got dressed and drove from Oxon Hill to Takoma Park in what seemed like 10 minutes. When I got there police and paramedics were just leaving, she was laying on the floor with a blanket covering her. I laid down beside her and hugged her, she felt just like my Val. She was warm as if she’d get up if I asked her to. But the look in her eyes told me she was gone. And just like that so, too, were my dreams, hopes, and promises for our brighter tomorrow. I was crushed. I kissed her for the last time, said goodbye and closed her eyes. It was said it’s better to have loved and lost than not loved at all, the way I feel I am not sure about that.
It’s been weeks now and I am still devastated. Friends have said the sun will shine again for me, I say to them ok but never as bright. My insides feel like someone has kicked them out. I hurt to the core of my being wondering what do I do now. Every day I struggle just trying to make sense of life. Some days I’m very accepting and others I am angry with her for leaving me this way, I feel cheated. Try listening to the words of Michael McDonald’s song “You can let go now”.
But I know what she would say. “Get it together and help someone else.”
Her service was Jan. 26 and it was joyous to hear so many people share such great stories about their experiences with Val’s generosity. One young mother described living in Howard County, working in D.C. and having her car break down. She was at her wits’ end and Val just gave her her car to use, saying “I can take the bus.” That was Val. Another young woman shared about being a runaway as a teenager and Val taking her in, even giving her an allowance, which made her feel part of the family.
Of all the kind things said, the one that brought the house down was the toilet paper story. Val saw a lady she knew in line at a store and noticed she was buying a two-roll pack of toilet paper. After Val and the lady got to talking in line the woman shared that she was taking care of all her grandchildren as well as herself and things were tight. As the woman was loading up her car outside here comes Val with a shopping cart full of the largest containers of toilet paper that she had ever seen! Now she says every time she wipes herself or runs out of toilet paper she thinks about Val’s kind heart. That was my Val.
She was a card shark too. That’s one way I’ve been able to keep her with me. We stayed engaged in a battle of who could surprise the other with the nicest, most clever greeting cards. Needless to say, I was in over my head and no match for Val’s kind sentiments and creative writing. Once I went on a mission to discover where she was getting these cards and never found out. But almost every day now as I go through my house I find another card that she most cleverly left hidden somewhere in drawers and cabinets or in the books or wherever. I have gathered all the cards and still may find new ones. I put them in plastic Ziploc bags and have pulled them out from time to time these last few days to read them to get me through.
The card that means the most to me is the one found the day after her death. What she wrote inside ends like this:
“I want you to set this card aside and remember it when you feeling happy and thankful and wonderful so you can remind yourself that that’s how you make me feel.”
“I hope you will put this someplace where you’ll see it when you are down and need a little uplifting or cheering up so you will remember that I’ll always be here to help chase the clouds away.”
“I want you to remember that every time you see this card sitting on a shelf and all the days to come you’re one of the most special people in all the world to me and you always will be.”
In death, she was still performing Random Acts of Kindness. That’s my Val.
I hope what they say about an afterlife is true and our souls really do get to meet again somewhere in the Cosmos. Until that time I am waiting in vain.