Forget Team Edward versus Team Jacob, Team Angelina versus Team Jennifer; today I am voting for Team Human. I choose this team for the increasingly rare opportunity to celebrate my membership. I celebrate the good I see that remains, and the ways man can enhance the life of another. And all of my celebrating is due to a simple interaction that I witnessed in a hotel.
Sandra Hyland, a front desk agent at Hotel Indigo Sarasota and coworker of mine, recently lost her father. His death was sudden and unexpected; one moment he was recovering from a seasonal cold, the next he fell victim to a massive stroke.
An only child and “daddy’s girl,” Sandra was not prepared for his passing. She was not prepared to receive the news at work, nor was she prepared for the complications that would follow.
Though I was not around to bear witness, those who saw the phone call and the moments following describe a woman struck by a blunt blow. The universe wound up and hit hard; and Sandra, normally as solid as they come, crumpled. She learned that her father died, that she would never get to talk to him again, that she would never get a final goodbye or a final “I love you,” and she hurt. She hurt badly.
If this were not enough, Sandra’s father passed in Vienna, Austria, her town of origin. From 5,209 miles away, Sandra had to deal with not only grief, but also logistics. Having spent most of his life as a ship captain, her father wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread on the Danube River. Sandra respected his wishes and wanted to comply, but doing so would come at her own emotional expense. In Austria, the remains of a cremated body cannot be released to a private individual. No urns are issued for the family to take home; no home altars for the deceased may be created. Once cremated, a body must immediately go to its final resting place, and that resting place must be outside of the home.
As such, Sandra, along with her stepmother—her father’s wife of 35 years—had a difficult decision to make. A last minute transatlantic flight was out of the question. As it would be for most, the ticket was cost-prohibitive. So the family had to decide: should they keep the body on ice awaiting daughter’s return, thereby delaying anyone’s chance at closure; or move forward with the proceedings, denying an only child the opportunity for a final goodbye?
Eek. Not a position I would like to be put in.
After a week of bereavement leave, Sandra returned to work red-eyed and weary. She issued repeated commands for everyone to call his or her parents that very day, saying you never knew which could be their last. And she shared the details of the dilemma. Like most, I was disheartened to hear of the situation and lent sympathy and well-wishes. I extended the obligatory offer to help in any way I could—sincere in my intentions, but going on autopilot. There was never anything anyone can actually do in these situations … right?
Samuel Copeland, an associate director at SSA & Company who had spent much of the past year living at the hotel while working on a project for Bealls, knew something he could do. Hearing of Sandra’s predicament and disturbed that an airline ticket was keeping her from peace of mind and a chance to move forward, he took action. While sitting in the hotel restaurant, eating breakfast and putting together a company presentation, he logged onto his Delta Skymiles account, and asked if I knew when she would need a ticket and how many days she would like to go for. He hesitated not a moment, and thought nothing of his deed. In his mind, Sandra needed help and deserved to be assisted. He had the ability to offer aid and he was going to do it. He did not do so in front of Sandra or in a hero-playing, attention-seeking way. He did so discreetly while pretending to talk to me about his next project, asking that no one know he was the donor, if at all possible.
Though a consultant and frequent traveler, Sam has not yet attained George Clooney Up in the Air ten-million point status. He is 26 and relatively new to the game. To buy Sandra’s last-minute ticket would have used 20 percent of his total points. It would have amounted to a large chunk of the hours he spent cramped in a too-small seat, attempting to work while shuffling city to city. Again, this did not faze Sam. When I suggested that he look for tickets from Atlanta to Amsterdam, using Delta’s major hubs to reduce the ticket amount, he told me (affectionately I’m sure), “not to be stupid.” The issue at hand was making this as easy as possible on Sandra, not saving a few points.
Sam was in the midst of performing what I now dub a Sincere Appreciation Moment. Because I’m corny, this can be abbreviated as SAM. These moments occur when one individual recognizes the impact another has made on his or her life, and responds with an act of gratitude and appreciation. For me, these deeds are an improvement upon random acts of kindness (RAK). SAMs are the merit award to RAK’s participation award. SAMs are granted only to people one appreciates, one respects or one is grateful for; whereas RAKs can go to anyone who shows up.
While the proffered points were in response to a predicament, the grander message behind the gesture lies in the human connection. Sam put his points at Sandra’s disposal because of who she was. Having seen her multiple times a week for the past year, Sam had come to know and respect Sandra. Efficient, friendly and good at her job, Sandra’s presence at the desk made Sam’s life easier. Her conversations improved his day; her advice improved his life. His gesture was a way of demonstrating appreciation for her existence, of thanking Sandra for her Sandra-ness, just as my diatribe is a way of thanking Sam for his Sam-ness.
Because Sam was leaving for Boca Raton the same day he impressed me with his SAM, I passed his offer along to the hotel’s General Manager, Leslie Power, who told our Assistant General Manager, Julia Allerdyce. Together they devised a paid time-off donation system to make the trip possible and presented the opportunity to Sandra. As one might expect, she was awe-stricken. “Blown away,” were her words. Imagine how she must have felt: trapped in a lose-lose situation, seeing no way out, emotionally drained and having just lost her father, a hotel guest offers her a solution. A generous one. And he makes it clear that he is offering it because she is a deserving person—he stresses that point.
After discussing the opportunity with her family, Sandra ended up turning down the points. They had reached a solution everyone felt comfortable with, which included a private cremation as quickly as possible out of respect for the father’s body, followed by a large memorial service in April. But, if there is anyone out there who thinks that just because the points were not accepted, the offer loses its significance, I beg to differ. I have no doubt that the SAM changed the entire situation for Sandra. In a time of trouble, she saw someone reach out and show her how appreciated she was, how important she was to the world. When I discussed it with her, Sandra seemed unable to put her gratitude in words. She said that after 20 years working in the hospitality industry, she had never seen anything like this. To have the kindness directed at her was more than she knew how to process.
Sandra noted that she would have to email her words of thanks to Sam, as she doubted she would be able to look at him without crying. When I passed on that tidbit, Sam deadpanned that he understood; after all, his was “a face only a mother could love.”
While said in jest, Sam mentioning his mother relieved the miniscule amount of guilt I had over sharing this story with his name in it. He requested anonymity and made me swear not to mention his name in relation to the deed. Unfortunately for him, he failed to see that my fingers were crossed during the interaction. As anyone who has been to elementary school knows, the crossed digits free me from any liability. Plus, I believe that acts of kindness done without any expectation of reward should be shared in full. Mankind deserves a little inspiration every now and again.
If the crossed fingers were not enough, I know Sam. I know that he would no more deny me my story than he would deny his mom the bragging rights that its publication brings. After all, she herself deserves a SAM for a job well done.