It’s now been thirty years since I was sent to America to pick up a computer that my company had ordered. Back then, getting a computer was a big deal: my coworkers and I were to receive three weeks of training before returning with the machine.
Not long after my arrival, I noticed an elderly woman who seemed to be a permanent resident at the hotel. My coworkers and I felt a great curiosity about this woman. We knew how expensive it is to stay in a hotel long-term, but she didn’t seem like a rich woman. There was no haughtiness or sense of superiority about her; on the contrary, she showed deference to everyone. She’d even thank the waiter every time he came to her table.
One night at about 11:30, we were awakened by a commotion. It seemed the elderly woman had gone missing: the door of her room was wide open, but she was nowhere to be found. Every young man in the hotel was mobilized to search for her.
Little Chen and I headed right out to the main road, where, sure enough, we saw the muddleheaded old woman walking in the middle of the street. We returned to a hero’s welcome. The hostess was immensely relieved to see her elderly guest return. Still smiling and thanking everybody, when she saw the hostess, the old woman exclaimed, “Thank you so much! You don’t even know me, but you’re so kind to me. You let me live here without paying a cent—without you, I don’t know where I’d go.” The host nearly fainted at what she said. Unable to control her emotions, she retreated into the next room, crying hard.
Little Chen and I were deeply puzzled by her reaction. Later, as we were eating breakfast the following day, the hostess came in, partly to thank us and partly to explain who the elderly woman was. She was actually the hostess’s mother, but because she had Alzheimer’s disease, she no longer recognized her daughter. The hostess was a stranger to her, which was why she was so grateful for her kindness. She smiled because she considered herself blessed—her life was free from worry because a stranger had been kind enough to take care of her in her declining years. But despite the old woman’s happiness, her daughter was chronically miserable. It hurt to have her mother so close without once being able to call her “Mother”. Little wonder she had almost fainted with sorrow at what her mother had said.
Three years later, the elderly woman had passed away. I asked the hostess if it still hurt that her mother had never recognized her. She said it did at first, but the hurt went away as she realized that her mother wouldn’t have been so happy had not Alzheimer’s prevented her from recognizing anyone. After her mother’s death, she had begun a new life for herself. The remainder of her days, she decided, would be devoted to volunteering for strangers, because she knew that doing so would bring great happiness to many.