The ‘Perfect’ Stranger

by Irving Bersak
Monroe Township, New Jersey, USA

The Perfect Stranger

The call came close to midnight, 14 years ago — but I remember it as though it happened yesterday. Bleary-eyed, I awoke and answered the phone’s insistent ring. My daughter-in-law, Alice, was calling from Denver: “Eric was killed by a drunk driver.”

It was like a blow to my heart. Eric, my beautiful youngest son, was gone. At 30 years of age, with a 2-year-old son whom he would never see grow up, was taken from us by a thoughtless drunk youngster. There is no way to convey the grief suffered by a parent to hear such news. Why couldn’t it have been me instead of Eric? was my first thought.

The last time we saw Eric was a few months before when we were between planes at Stapleton Airport in Denver, returning from a trip to Alaska. He had come out to be with us while we waited, having come from visiting a sick friend in the hospital. Little did we suspect that we would never see him again.

Of course, further sleep was out of the question. My wife, Elaine, and I sped off to Newark Airport to get on the first plane to Denver. We stayed at a nearby motel after arriving in Colorado. The next morning as we were waiting on line to enter a restaurant to have a breakfast we could not eat I was on the verge of having a complete breakdown.

One of the people on line, a man I had never met, looked at me and said, “I can see that you’re hurting. Why don’t we go some place and talk about it?” He and I left the line and found a bench nearby. Between sobs, I told him what had happened. After unburdening myself a bit talking to him about Eric he asked when and where the funeral would be held.

The day of the funeral came and we were gathered for the services. The place was packed with relatives and friends, many of whom had flown in from distant places to attend them. I looked around at all the people. There, seated among them, was my new friend, the person with whom I spoke at the restaurant, uninvited, unannounced, who had never met Eric but who showed the decency and courtesy to pay his respects to him and us, sharing our grief at our time of utter helplessness.

I learned later that he was a minister in the Denver area who was undeterred by our being of a different faith. During the ensuing years we had kept in touch by mail. But I didn’t know his background at the time. I did know that this person reached out to us in our time of need, unselfishly offering a degree of solace to strangers — my wife and me, that provided a strong straw for us to grasp when our world collapsed around us.

What he did was a true example of how decent people can be. He was the “perfect” stranger.

Originally published as HeroicStories #113 on Jan 27, 2000
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 2.

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