My life this time last year should have been, in theory, pretty wonderful.
I was in the South of France, and it was beautiful weather: clear, warm and sunny. My hosts had accommodated me in a roomy suite, with views of calm blue seas and silhouetted palm trees. The conference I was at was both useful and stimulating: full of smart people, great stories, and useful contacts.
And then I got a call from my brother, saying my mother had been taken ill in Zimbabwe and was in intensive care. Although he didn’t want to alarm me unduly, he said, the doctors had warned that her condition was extremely serious – and she wasn’t improving. And then he uttered the words that no one wants to hear: “I think you need to get back quickly. We’re not sure how long she’s going to last.”
Finding flights to Zimbabwe from the UK can be a trial at the best of times. But when you’re away from home, in a foreign city, in a conference centre, away from things and people that are familiar, it can feel pretty overwhelming.
And overwhelmed is exactly what I was. Normally, I’m pretty level headed. But on this day, having just been told my mother might die, my brain went into meltdown. How was I going to check out of my hotel immediately? Find a plane ticket that would get me there as quickly as possible? Pay for a plane ticket? Get to the airport?
The answers to all those questions was: I didn’t have to. And that’s because an angelic PR saw me in floods of tears, scooped me up and took me somewhere quiet. And there, efficiently and kindly, she came to my rescue.
While I went back to my hotel to pack, she located a travel agent to find me a flight. She rang the concierge to book me a cab to the airport. And although she was in charge of PR for the entire conference – and had dozens of demanding journalists from around the world endlessly harassing her – she regularly called me to make sure I was ok.
I’ve always known this woman to be good at her job. Always admired her for her straightforwardness and her honesty. What I hadn’t appreciated was what a lovely human being she was.
When you work with people all the time, it’s easy to stereotype them. They become cogs in a professional work-chain.
What she reminded me of is the power of kindness – and real friendship – in our professional lives. When I tried to thank her afterwards, all she said was “You’d do the same for me”. Which I hope I would.
In a few days I am flying to Zimbabwe again – this time to celebrate Christmas with my mum in her home, rather than to sit beside her in a coma. When we raise a glass or two over the festivities, and toast absent friends, I’ll remind myself how lucky I have been to have had so many enriching relationships in my work life, with people who started out as colleagues and became real friends.
Merry Christmas to you all. And here’s to passing on kindness.