What Kindness Means to Me: Dr. Mollie Burke

          My story begins the night before I moved away to college.

I remember the stillness of the house, the wind streaming through the open window next to my bed, lying awake and grappling with the realization that everything would change in the morning.  A soft knock echoed in the room, and my mom popped her head in. She was dressed – like fully dressed – and had that look of a parent pretending that all is well. She let me know that my younger brother was not feeling well, and that they were “just going to get him checked out.” At 2 or 3 in the morning, that isn’t exactly a routine check-up, but she assured me that they’d just run him in to make sure things were okay, and they’d be back in the morning to help me make the move to college.

The rest of the story plays out in a way that still doesn’t feel quite real to me.

My parents were not, in fact, home in the morning. When my alarm went off, my sister and I made the final efforts to pack all of my life and possessions into the car. I found myself adopting that same face that my mom had put on the night before, that “no big deal, everything is fine” kind of face. But it wasn’t. In the middle of putting the boxes into the car, my mom called. My brother had meningitis, his condition was severe, and he was being hospitalized immediately.

At the time of the phone call, doctors were very concerned. We all were.

My stomach dropped; the combination of fear for my brother and anxiety about moving away from home had overtaken me somewhat at that point. But, the plans remained. I was moving out today, and needed to keep moving. I grabbed my tiny TV, and stepped out on the front porch.

From across the street, my neighbor called over that it “looked like my house was on fire,” and that I may want to check.

Sure enough, as I turned around, there was a cloud of grey smoke rising from the back of the house. My adrenaline shot up, I put the TV down in the front yard, and I told my sister to get out of the house and call someone. Then, I began running through the house, trying to find the source of the smoke, hoping it was still small enough to put out.

The first act of kindness in this story comes from my uncle.

I have this uncle who seems to be able to fix and take care of anything. When we couldn’t find the source of the fire, but were still concerned there was one, we called him. He arrived within minutes of being called, stopped his truck in the middle of the street, door open, and ran into the house. He had clearly dropped whatever he was doing and just run out the door. Without a question, he had run into the house. It was an act of kindness so selfless and so natural for him – to take care of us without a second thought.

Thankfully, he was quickly able to discern that there was no fire, and that the source of smoke was just behind the house, and totally harmless. My sister and I thanked him, and he left. And there we were again. On the lawn, heart racing, back to the work of sending me off to college.

By the time I got behind the wheel to leave home, my nerves were shot.

My brother was still in the hospital, his condition severe, and I had just come back down from the panic of thinking that the home I was about to leave might be burning to the ground. And I was about to drive away from it, all my possessions in tow, by myself.

I was outside city limits before I fell apart, the mix of emotion, fear, adrenaline, excitement, and uncertainty an overwhelming cocktail in my system. I didn’t want to worry my parents, sitting somewhere at my brother’s hospital bedside. So, I called my best friend, and I told her everything. That I didn’t know if my brother was okay, or was going to be okay. That I was driving to a new place and didn’t really know what to do when I got there. That I was alone. She sat on the phone with me the entire drive, sometimes speaking, sometimes telling jokes to make me laugh, and sometimes just sitting in silence as I cried.

Later that day, as I was trying to make sense of my new home, my friend was driving to the hospital to visit my brother when I could not. She called me several times that day, updating me, checking in. I never asked her what she was supposed to be doing that day, and she never said.

But her loving kindness, her willingness to be my silent passenger, and to be with my family when I could not, is what sticks with me about that day.

My brother is fine. Our house still stands. In many ways, my move to college was one of the most ridiculous, dramatic, terrifying days of my life. But what I remember is the image of my uncle’s truck stopped in the middle of the road, and of him running toward the house to help. And the voice of my friend, and her willingness to drop her entire day so that I wouldn’t feel afraid or alone.

On one of the craziest days of my life, the kindness is what I remember.


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