When Kindness Becomes Risky Business

How Do You Make the Right Decision During a Pandemic?

By Paul Gilbert

It’s a sign of these extraordinarily uncertain times when “help a little old lady across the street,” becomes a potentially life-threatening decision.

It was late on a Sunday and I was about to enter the drugstore to pick up a prescription. Pharmacies and grocery stores are the two places I feel the most exposed to the coronavirus, so even with my mandatory facemask, I was on edge. I’ve been super vigilant during the shelter in place orders and my wife is immunocompromised, so the fewer chances I take, the better.

Approaching the entrance, I noticed an elderly woman gesturing to me from her car, which was parked in a handicapped spot. I heard her call, “Can you help me? I can’t turn the key.”

Walking slowly towards to her older sedan, I guessed the woman was in her eighties. She was all dressed up as if going out to dinner, including make-up and jewelry, not exactly a run-to-the-store during a health crisis outfit. But by the look in her eyes, it was obvious she was confused and I could see that her hand was shaking.

“I can’t turn my key” she repeated,” can you turn it for me?”

That sounded like a strange request. How could someone drive to the store without being able to turn on the ignition? My first reaction was “of course,” but in the next instant, I realized that I’d be risking exposure to a stranger. She wasn’t wearing a mask and I didn’t want to get in her car and touch anything, but I couldn’t just walk away. I moved closer and saw a cane perched across her lap. What are the guidelines for this kind of situation when the old rulebook doesn’t apply anymore?

I took a deep breath. “OK, roll down your passenger window, I’ll give it a try.” I didn’t have gloves, so I pulled the sleeve of my shirt over my right hand. I reached into the car, aware that I was now less than a foot or two away from her. I turned the key and saw the lights on the dashboard come on, so it wasn’t the battery, but the engine didn’t turn over. Next, I told her to put her foot on the brake and again, turned the key with no result.

I thought for a second about what else to do. If there was a mechanical problem, I certainly couldn’t fix it. Who knows if she had roadside service and it was a Sunday, so no auto mechanics would be open. I guess I could have called the police or fire department, but she was looking more frazzled by the moment.

What was she doing out in the first place if she got so mixed up so easily? My father had dementia, as does my older brother, so I know the brain doesn’t function the same way and small decisions or tasks can be almost paralyzing. Not that I was making a spot diagnosis, but it did cross my mind. Should I at least offer her a ride, but that would further increase the risk.

Suddenly, a thought popped into my head. Glancing down, I saw that her purse was covering the gear shift. I asked her to move it and lo and behold, she had the car in reverse. Again, pulling down my sleeve, I moved it into park, turned the key and the engine finally started. She turned to me with a look of gratitude and relief etched across her face.

“You are my knight in shining armor.”

I smiled and extricated myself from the car. Later on, I realized that I had no idea whom she came in contact with on a regular basis and older people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the coronavirus. But for whatever reason, the universe put me in that exact spot and she seemed scared. My mother lived until ninety and while she went out to run errands into her eighties, she was fragile and uncertain at times. Although this situation held unique dangers, I only did what I would have wanted someone else to do for her.

In retrospect, my action wasn’t even remotely heroic, especially compared to the bravery and courage exhibited every day by those on the front lines of this pandemic. Mine was simply a small act of compassion, something which I wouldn’t hesitate to do under normal circumstances. Faced with an instantaneous decision, I had to make a choice and I went with my heart rather than my head. I know it wasn’t the smart thing to do, but was it the right thing?

Either way, I turned that key. You can’t quarantine kindness.

Paul Gilbert is a Writer and Producer in San Anselmo, CA

Four decades into the writing game, it’s still about the story.

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