I refused to believe it when the call came. In denial, in the car on the way home from my then-boyfriend’s house, I talked about how I couldn’t wait to see my mum and tell her my news. Yet, deep down, I knew why I was being driven home so urgently by his mum.
My mum had died. I remember running sobbing up the drive, through the gate and through the back door. My dad stood solemnly and shook his head. My world collapsed.
Mum had spent the past week in Intensive Care after her lung had collapsed following a routine leg operation. I had been with her the previous evening, but the next day she had succumbed to septicemia and pneumonia, after battling multiple sclerosis for over 20 years.
She was 43.
I was 17.
Fast forward 25 years to my 43rd birthday. Despite having carved out a happy life as an author and ghostwriter of self-help and business books, and now with a nine year old daughter of my own, I knew that my own 43rd birthday would be a tough one. For today I would become the same age as my mum, which I knew would feel weird and sad. I knew it would make me think about that terrible day once more (hence my reflecting on and writing about it, for the first time publicly, here).
So I had decided to honour my kind-hearted mum and do something to counter the strange melancholy feelings of being the same age as her; something that would give me a boost; something that I hoped she’d be proud of. I began planning a kindness marathon.
On my 43rd birthday I would carry out 43 acts of kindness. The idea was inspired by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, creator of the Certificate of Applied Positive Psychology, (which I'd recently qualified in). She had embarked on 32 acts of kindness for her 32nd birthday. I knew this would be the perfect way to honour mum and perk me up on my 43rd.
I put a shout out on Facebook to gather ideas, having compiled a list of 28, and was overwhelmed with the support and encouragement. Next I needed to logistically plan the day to ensure I could get all 43 done in between dropping my daughter off and collecting her from school and still have a little bit of downtime together before bedtime.
Having baked cookies the night before, the day began delivering them to neighbours. It was such a treat to put names to faces I’d waved/smiled at, but never spoken to, despite them living just a few doors down from us in our quiet corner of suburbia.
The elderly Indian husband and wife I see on their daily walk, the family with two daughters close to my own in age and two lovely folk who I’d never seen or met in the two years we’d lived here due to their working hours.
After collecting the children of a friend who’s been struggling with sciatica and giving her a surprise coffee and gift of half an hour to herself while I took them to school, I dropped a donation of coffee and biscuits into the school classroom, along with a bottle of ginger-beer to caretaker Jerry and ventured to the Supermarket for my first public act of kindness, where I bought coffees for some strangers.
Both were taken aback but thankful, especially Mike, who had to drive the arduous journey back to Liverpool later that day and was grateful for the early morning boost. The pregnant lady I complimented and high-fived for her radiance, was also smiling broadly. Perhaps it was refreshing to her, given that strangers tend to fire questions at expectant mums, to be complimented instead.
After packing a great-grandma of six’s shopping bag, dishing out Milk Tray chocolates and giving ‘You’re Awesome’ cards to random mums, I bought half a dozen bunches of flowers and headed off to my next area to donate clothes to charity, volunteer in the charity shop and, one of my favourites: sneakily pop encouraging notes into library books for people to find.
After nipping home to grab some lunch I headed off to the local hospital to donate two boxes of shortbread biscuits to the nurses station. This was followed by another favourite act on my kindness quest – sellotaping two £1 coins to the parking meter with a note to say “park for free on me. #YAYITFORWARD”.
I had intended to stick and run, but a lady approached the meter before I had time to dash off, so I explained what I was doing and why. She hugged me explaining how she’d had an awful year. Her husband had left her, then her uncle had died, but things, she said, were looking up. It had been her birthday the day before and now this. She was close to tears as she hugged me, beaming. It really is the little things that can make a big difference. This was what it was all about.
Next, I had planned to stand on the streets of Romsey and give flowers to random folk but, as I approached the bus stop, I overheard two women, one elderly British lady and one young muslim woman, chatting. The older lady was talking about how her husband had recently passed away and the younger lady had such a warm smile I couldn’t walk past without giving them a bunch of flowers each. They were both so grateful and hopped onto their bus with a spring in their step.
Round the corner I found a minibus bursting with pensioners. They were about to be driven back to their care home. It had been on my list to visit a residential ‘old folks’ home, but the clock was ticking and I figured it would be just as kind to stop and chat to these lovely people and dish out chocolates to them all, along with the driver. They loved hearing about my day so far and what I had planned and we spoke about their younger years and their renewed sense of appreciation for having the chance to grow old, something my own mother hadn’t been granted.
“Make the most of every minute,” said Nora, her red dress as vibrant as her smile. “I’m over twice your age and it doesn’t half fly past,” she said. The others nodded.
Making the most of life, is the tag line on my website and the raison d’etre for my book, The Flourish Handbook, because, I know that life can be short, as mum's was. So we should do what we can to make the most of it. As I waved them off, I realised that connecting with these lovely people was meant to be.
After popping some flowers in to the mother-in-laws on a surprise visit and buying myself a birthday set of wind chimes in a shop I’d often walked past but never taken the time to step into, (self-kindness is important too) next stop was the swimming baths where I took great pleasure in telling the lady behind me in the queue that I would like to pay for her swimming.
At first she thought I was asking her to pay for the person behind her. “No,” I smiled, “your swimming is on me.” It was only a few quid but she couldn’t believe it, nor could the family of four who received the same treatment. I skipped off to the car and then remembered the leisure centre would likely have a vending machine, so I popped back in, by which point all of the staff knew about the kindness marathon and gathered round, wanting to hear all about it.
Time was ticking on, and I was able to ‘stick and run’ with the vending machine AOK, as I sellotaped “it’s your lucky day” post-its and £1 coins to the vending machine and then legged it before anyone came. It felt just as good to do that, even though I didn’t get to see the reaction – a true random act of kindness, yet equally fulfilling.
Only an hour left until I had to collect my daughter from school, so I drove to the animal shelter and donated some dog food. Kai, one of the rescue dogs was happy to pose for a photo as he drooled at the box of delights. I headed home and wrote the envelopes for the letters I’d written the night before – one to a bereaved children’s charity and another, as per my list “to an inspirational person” – JK Rowling – someone I’ve admired and wanted to write to for many years to thank her for her generous donations to the MS society and for all that she has done to inspire generations of children and, with Lumos, to give children a voice and a chance by eradicating institutions and reuniting children with family life. I had planned to send the letter via her charity, Lumos, or via her management team. I could hardly believe it when I discovered my third cousin lives round the corner from Joanne and was able to give me her address!
En route to school pick up I stopped by a friend’s house to deliver the zucchini bake I’d cooked the previous night. As mum to a newborn baby, I knew that a food delivery would be welcome. Next, another favourite, I knocked on the door of a retirement flat to find a wonderful 91 year old lady, Sabba (also known as Nancy, but she doesn’t like to be called that). She’s called Sabba after the Sabbath as she's one of seven and was born on Sunday. She chose the pink flowers and we had a lovely natter. I think I'm going to visit her again. She nominated another OAP who’d had a bad year but wasn’t in, so I left her flowers with a note on her doorstep.
I managed to squeeze in a final act by delivering some inspirational MamaFrancis cards to my friend Ella who, as a mum of four children under 7, most of whom had been struck down with a sickness bug that past week, deserved a gift. We walked to school in the rain where I was able to make a donation to arts week, matched by a teacher, to save it from being cancelled.
Back home, I finished my letters and put together a package of pants to send to charity, Smalls For All, a Scottish Charity which collects and distributes underwear to help women and children in Africa. I enlisted my daughter to write an encouraging letter to a girl with Cystic Fibrosis via PostPals, who shared her name and then I wrote and folded 7 notes to my mister and daughter about why I love them, ready to be opened over the next week.
The Daily Echo wrote a lovely piece about my 'kindness marathon' and I received an email from a local headmaster inviting me to talk at their school, where 'kindness' is one of their values. I also heard from a few people who had been encouraged to do their own acts of kindness after reading the piece. Yay! #YAYITFORWARD!
All that was left was to make a donation to MS Society to help try to find a cure for the disease mum battled for so long, adopt an Elephant, phone a friend and put cat food out for our resident hedgehog. I had intended to be kind to myself by running a hot bath and pouring a glass of bubbly, but I was beyond tired, so I headed straight to bed and did one final act - one of gratitude more than kindness - I lit a candle and thanked mum for all that she gave me, for helping shape the best parts of me, for being her wonderful sunshiny positive and brave self.
My day of kindess had a big effect on me. It turned a day that was tough into a day that was tender; a feeling of connection replaced the feeling of solitude that being a mum without a mum often creates, no matter how surrounded by love you are.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just the day itself which had such a positive impact. Both the planning and ‘afterglow’ in the days that followed also boosted my overall sense of well-being. And there’s some science to explain why so. According to the National Academy of Sciences in "A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation," brain scans have shown that planning a donation activates the mesolimbic pathway, associated with feelings of happiness and increased levels of dopamine - the body's feel good chemical. No wonder the whole experience of planning, doing and reflecting on the acts of kindness, was so uplifting.
Although tiring, my kindness marathon was refreshing too. I felt replenished, like a tap had been turned on to top up my inner wellspring of well-being.
It felt like such a fitting tribute to my super-smiley mum and it’s helped me to turn the page ready for the next chapter of my life, where I'll be older than my mum.
I'll take with me into that next phase of my life, a phase that mum never got to enjoy, a renewed sense of gratitude for every moment and a toolkit of altruism that I can use, not only when I’m feeling down, but also on a more regular basis. Because making other people smile is a great way to live.
What's more - I've been the recipient of more acts of kindness than usual since the big day. As well as a birthday bottle of fizz that the residents of number 14 dropped round on my birthday evening, (I'd never met them prior to my cookie delivery) on Friday I awoke to a note from next door to say they'd left two bottles of water on our doorstep as a main water pump had burst leaving 20,000 homes, including ours, without water.
Kindness is contagious.
It’s addictive too.
Today I pulled up for fuel and looked round at the person behind me. She was wearing a face that said, ‘don’t look at me’. I grimaced. The world can be frowny at times. But I decided I would smile at her. Joining her in the queue I said, ‘isn’t your hair lovely?’ ‘You what?’ she said, still frowning. ‘Your hair, it’s beautiful.’ ‘Oh,” she said, ‘Thanks. It needs a cut, but thanks love,” and off she went swishing her hair and returning the smile.
We live in an auto-pilot world where we are so busy and default defensive. Some days our expectations of people are low. Maybe we’ve been let down? Maybe we’re struggling? Maybe today has been crap. But, if each of us can go out of our way to be that little bit kinder, even if we risk the occasional raised-eyebrow in doing so, we can create a ripple, a contagion of kindness to lift ourselves and others up too.
Because we’re in this rollercoaster called life together.