Quiet Gratitude

Below are the contents of a letter sent to our offices by a grateful recipient of Red Cross services during the North Bay wildfires. They asked to remain anonymous but were happy to share their perspective.

June 27, 2018

Dear Red Cross Angels,

When the fire devoured [my home], it vaporized every vestige of my life, including my very identity-and it nearly vaporized me. I escaped, barefoot, with only seconds to spare. As I approached the Veterans Memorial Hall, at around 4:30 AM., I was struck by the realization that, for the first time in my adult life (at age 77), I was utterly helpless and at the mercy of strangers. For a man who had always felt extremely strong, capable, and independent, it was a shock, and I was apprehensive about what might lie before me.

I need not have been. From the moment I walked through those doors, looking like some­thing the cat dragged in, you (and everyone else there) showered me with such kindness, generosity, and compassion that I felt safe and, if not exactly happy, at least comforted. And also, believe it or not, somewhat useful. I had been there only a few minutes, dazed by the chaos, confusion, and cacophony, when someone (it might have been Peggy Goebel) said to me, “You look like someone who could help us. Are you willing?”
“Sure,” I replied, wondering what she could have seen in my scruffy appearance that made her think that. She sat me down at a table with a few other people, and for the next 12 hours straight, I helped sign people in and get them oriented, directing them to places I hadn’t even seen myself yet. It was a crazy time, as you well know. I had done volunteer work of various kinds all my life, but never anything like that. It felt great to be of service!

For the 12 days I was there (during which period I was hospitalized for one day for a medical crisis before finally being taken away again when my condition became life­threatening), you gave me shelter; you cared for my minor injuries and illnesses; you clothed me; and you nourished me, body and soul-especially soul. I came to regard you as my guardian angels. Individually and collectively, you embodied what Goethe wrote:
Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together.

The “society” of fire survivors and evacuees at the shelter was indeed bound together by the golden chain of your many kindnesses to us (and of ours to one another). By exemplify­ing humanity at its finest, you helped bring out the better angels of our own nature, leading to a flowering of mutual, contagious kindness and compassion such as I had never seen, or even imagined, in a large and very diverse group of people. For that brief, shining moment, under the pall of death and destruction, our basic humanity triumphed over everything else: race, creed, religion, even politics. None of that mattered. It was wonderful.

For all the physical discomfort of being there, you still managed to make it, emotionally and spiritually, a most positive and uplifting experience, and I’m so grateful to have had it. It enriched my life (what was left of it) in beautiful and surprising ways, giving me comfort in the present and hope for the future. Its living legacy is the lasting friendships I made there, with some of you as well as with others.

In a curious way, you were like the angels mentioned in the Bible, almost none of whom were ever named. I never got to know most of your names either, but I loved all of you for who you were and what you were doing for us. Through good fortune, I did get to know a few of you who became, and will forever remain, very dear to me: Robin Dieter, Rose Raphael, Joan Acquistapace, and Peggy Goebel. (Hmm-all women. Did I mention that I adore and revere women?) But there were men too. I especially appreciated Bill Eichhorn, whose calm leadership in the face of extraordinary challenges always inspired confidence. Bravo, Bill!

And there was a night nurse, Maia Ellison, from Kaiser in Oakland (I don’t know if she was with ARC or not), whose exquisitely kind and caring nature made a deep impression on me. Oh, Lord, there were so many other angels, most of whose names, if l knew them at all, I have now forgotten (please forgive me). But I will never forget what they did. Thank you all, and God bless you all.

P.S. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Red Cross for another reason: one of my Swiss ancestors was instrumental in founding the International Red Cross in Geneva in 1863. How pleased he would have been if he could have seen the fruits of his labor: you in action.

P.P.S. At the shelter, the only ID I had was a small scrap of red paper that one of you stuck to the wall above my cot with a bit of duct tape. It had just one word: [my first name]. I kept it, a treasured memento of that amazing, surreal experience.