After a little over 12 years together, my wife Liz gave birth to our first child on March 24, 2008. Our daughter Madeline came into the world seven weeks earlier than any of us expected via an emergency cesarean section, and in spite of our concerns about potential complications, Maddy was doing quite well. The next day, as Liz stood up from her bed to go see our daughter for the first time, she collapsed in my arms. Doctors and nurses rushed in to help her, while I stood in shock just outside her door. I had countless thoughts and scenarios going through my head, but it only took a few minutes for me to realize exactly what was happening. Liz’s obstetrician confirmed my worst fear: She was dead, likely the result of a pulmonary embolism.
I was destroyed. My best friend, the woman of my dreams and the mother of my child was gone. I would never be able to hug her again, or ask her for advice about my job. She would never, ever get to hold her child or experience any of the litany of “firsts” Madeline would have throughout her life. We would never get the chance to discuss the tough questions parents face, nor would we know what it was like to have our child use one of us against the other. I was utterly lost in a world I’d only known through her, with her by my side. Without the love of my life, I was now facing a lifetime as a single father to the daughter we were so excited to raise together.
In the midst of my most hopeless moment, I put my faith in the people around me. As a long-since lapsed Catholic (now an atheist), I had no religious beliefs or traditions to guide me, and I realized quite quickly that it would be the folks in our lives who would help us the most. Within hours, I learned just how correct I was. As word of liz’s death spread throughout our circle of friends, family and coworkers, many of them dropped everything to be by our side. I knew Liz’s death would have a profound effect on everyone she had ever met, and as much as I knew I could count on those close to us, I never expected the outpouring of support these people showered upon us.
Knowing my financial future would be bleak without Liz’s income, my friends set up a memorial fund, providing those who wanted to help a central place to give. The funeral home where Liz’s memorial service took place resembled the most well-stocked floral shop anyone could possibly imagine. Each plant and flower arrangement included notes with memories of Liz and messages for Maddy and me. Several of my coworkers, most of whom had never met Liz, decorated our home with 1000 paper cranes to bring us luck. Our house had a constant flood of visitors during the day, ensuring Maddy and I were never alone. And as the cliché goes, our house was overflowing with food for months after Liz died.
But more important than money, flowers, cranes and food, these people gave me hope we could survive, and quite possibly even thrive in our new reality. I knew that no matter what happened, they would always be there for us, even as they returned to their everyday lives. They would make certain we would not fail without Liz.
To stay in touch, I began chronicling my life with Maddy via a blog. I never expected anyone besides them would ever see my words and in fact, I wasn’t certain those closest to us would even read it. But it didn’t take long for the blog and our story to go viral, and within weeks of her death, I was receiving emails and comments from people around the world. I was once again amazed by the torrent of support we received; this time from complete strangers.
Soon, these individuals began sending care packages that included everyday items like clothes, diapers, formula coupons and toys for Maddy, and items to help raise my spirits like beer, books and gift certificates to my favorite record store. This was the last reaction I expected from strangers reading my blog. Not once did I ask for anything or hint at things we may need. I simply wrote about our daily lives and readers reacted. I also hadn’t provided my address, nor had I knowingly made it public, yet somehow packages landed on our doorstep every day. I have to admit, it was especially disconcerting when boxes arrived without a return address. I often expected the worst (like a bomb, a dead animal or something equally awful) as I unwrapped another plush toy for Maddy. Not once did we receive something that wasn’t sent with the best of intentions. Still, it was hard to not be skeptical. We’re conditioned to treat strangers with cynicism and doubt.
As nice as these packages were, I found myself wondering why strangers reached out to us in this way. With a little help from my father-in-law, I came to understand their motivations. They could relate to my story, but there was nothing they could do to fix it, so they did the next best thing: they tried to relieve our pain by being there for us, and since most of them didn’t live anywhere near Los Angeles, the only way they could offer support was by sending things they thought would help us make it through the day.
What I found most interesting about the people sending packages and words of encouragement was that we had almost nothing in common. The majority were women, many were religious and didn’t subscribe to the same political beliefs I did, and we most certainly didn’t share the same taste in music and movies. It was unlikely we would ever meet in person, and even if we did, we’d likely never be friends because of our differences. Yet there they were, supporting us the only way they knew how.
It took me a little while to realize I was searching for commonalities in the wrong places. Instead of being tied together by superficial things like the kinds of books we read or the TV shows we enjoyed, we had the human condition in common. It was out of the kindness of their hearts that these strangers reached out to us. They were demonstrating genuine empathy for a man and his daughter who were going through the process of dealing with an undeniably tragic situation; one they could see their own families in.
Inspired by their kindness and knowing I would never be able to pay each of them back for the impact they’d made in my life, I started a non-profit foundation in honor of liz to help families who’d been through a similarly tragic event. I wanted to harness the goodwill my blog readers had showered upon my family and make sure others knew the power of having faith in humanity. It’s hard to believe strangers can be there in your time of need, but sometimes faith is all we’ve got.
This piece was originally published in our print issue FAITH.