Lessons in kindness from babies and strangers

4 January 2024
Rhea Pal Written by Rhea Pal
Rhea Pal

Rhea Pal

Rhea Pal is 40 years old. She’s dark, short, forgets names easily and is a rockstar in her...

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One fine evening of 2010

‘Your flight is at 6 in the morning’ said the HR lady on the phone. I hate early morning flights, but I consoled myself thinking I’ll catch a wink on the 3 hour journey. I packed my torn jeans, t-shirt, fancy sunglasses – everything that a hip advertiser was likely be seen in, at a shoot.

I finished a light dinner, set the alarm for 2:30 a.m. and melted into the sheets. The next few hours was a dance-off of light and deep sleep. 

I reached the airport well before time. The noise didn’t give away the odd hour of the clock. I took a seat, put on my headphones and let my eyes gaze endlessly. A young woman passed by me with a baby. The sight of them half scared and half angered me. ‘I hope they aren’t on my flight,’ my mind hissed. The last chaos I needed before a heartlessly long day was a wailing baby.

The wait was short and the flight executive hollered us to line up for boarding. Half of my mind was thinking about the work ahead, half about the mother and the child’s flight.

I made my way across to the end of the aircraft and settled peacefully in my middle seat – waiting for the humdrum to die down so that I could sleep. Middle seat! Trust the HR to always make your life a little bit uncomfortable. I let my anger rest aside, lightly shut my eyes and let my head collapse on the seat. 

‘Excuse me’, a light voice interrupted. ‘That’s our seat’. I got up without looking at the person. She went in and sat down in the window seat. I looked and my heart cried a million cries. It was the lady with the baby. 

She looked and moved clumsily. 2 bags, a harness and a feeding bottle,  in one hand while juggling the baby on the other. She was dressed shabbily, I remember thinking. I didn’t smile. I didn’t help her. My mind sighed and I must have made a face – I am sure of it. 

I was counting seconds for the shriek to tear across the aircraft. And it did. The moment the flight took off, the wailing felt like nails to an unslept brain.

I looked at the mother angrily, as did 20 other people in the surrounding rows. She struggled to pacify the child. The more she tried, the louder the baby screamed. 

Why do they allow babies on the flight? Why can’t parents travel by train? Why doesn’t she shut the baby up? My mind was burning with anger while carrying a flimsy headphone. 

After a long one-hour wait, the baby quietened down and cruised into a peaceful sleep. “Wonderful, ruin mine but get your rest, you little piece of evil,” I thought. The mother hid her face in the window pane. Mothers sense emotions. This one smelt 20 angry passengers’ anger until everyone got off the flight. She sat there while holding the baby tightly to her body. 

One fine afternoon of 2023

Lessons in kindness from babies and strangers

“Have you packed his diaper bag?” I asked my husband. “And the feeder, and the extra clothes and the water bottle?” We checked and rechecked every item on the list while the baby tried to eat the dog’s tail. I was nervous, unsure and dressed in a crumpled skirt. My baby was 8 months old and I was flying with him for the very first time to meet my parents. 

As I walked through the airport formalities, dropping the feeder, the ticket, the boarding pass and even sometimes the baby, I could feel the eyes on me praying. God, let her not be on my flight. Or was I imagining that. It was hard to say, with Ryan being fidgety, finicky, and difficult. 

I sat near the window and strapped myself and the baby in, praying that he sleeps without a noise. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears with fear. My eyes stuck to the entryway of the aircraft, while my mind played ‘is she going to, is he going to’ sit beside me game.

A few extremely stretched moments later, a young guy with a tablet, fancy earphones and really blingy shoes sat beside me. I looked out of the window and avoided his gaze. I could almost hear his brain hating me and my child. The pounding had spread to my throat.

The flight took off and Ryan let out a wail that made my heart sink with dread and disappointment. I clumsily tried to console him. The feeder fell. I picked it up, the harness slapped the young man’s face, I quickly put it under the seat. But I never forgot to avoid his gaze. If I don’t look I’ll not know they’re staring at me with burning, angry eyes, I thought. Ryan kept screaming voraciously.

A moment later, I heard the young man say, “Excuse me”. I cringed and prepared myself for an angry, “Shut that damn baby!”. I turned and almost bubbled out an ‘I am really sorry’ but stopped seeing him smile. “Why don’t I hold him for a moment, and you take a minute to relax.”

He was willingly agreeing to carry a wailing child on a flight? I couldn’t manage a “thank you” while I handed him the crying baby. He cooed, played and made faces to quieten him. Ryan’s cries gently drifted into tingling giggles and he made a friend with just a toothless smile. 

I remembered the mother I had met when I was an obnoxious, ill-mannered, insensitive 28-year-old. I couldn’t go back 13 years to tell her – I’m sorry you hadn’t had time to eat. That she, too, was surviving on no sleep. That she was also so very scared of us – the people on the flight. I wish I could tell her ‘that I knew her baby was hurting and she felt helpless’. 

My baby has taught me a lot of lessons. He’s taught me that early morning hugs are the best way to start your day. That smiling at strangers isn’t weird. That if you look beyond fear, you’ll only find possibilities. But being kind shouldn’t have been a lesson that I had to be taught by a baby and a stranger.  

If you would like to read more about kindness, Nirmala Peters has a wonderful take on it.

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