Cough Drops and Hot Chocolate: What Two Strangers Gave Me on My Birthday


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I wanted the bike out of my house.

Okay, it wasn’t a full-size bike—it was a table-top metal bike decoration. But since I had posted it on Facebook Marketplace months earlier, no one had asked about it—until my birthday.

I’ve sold many things on Facebook, and I’ve learned to set some ground rules: if your profile picture makes you look like a serial killer, I won’t meet you; if you’re rude to me in your messages, I won’t sell you my items; and even if you’re as polite as Mr. Rogers, I won’t deliver items to your house.

Even if you’re as polite as Mr. Rogers, I won’t deliver items to your house.

Usually when I tell people I don’t deliver, that’s the end of it. But the woman explained, “My husband and I have ben together 1 ur feb 2 because of a bike. Can you come to my place? My tires is all the way off it’s rim we should have coverage but we don’t have a spare it’s just one big mess.”

I would usually have said, “Sorry, no.” But I wanted the thing out of my house, so I agreed to drop by at 2:00.

At 1:00 she sent another message. “I know this is weird, by any chance can you buy cough drops?”

I’ve encountered many strange people and stories in my Facebook sales: a man who offered to trade me his push mower for a $120 camera I was selling; a woman who asked if I’d take $20 for a $100 exercise bike; a cross dresser who bought my dresser; the woman who cried when she picked up my box of Pillsbury doughboy items because their brother, who had recently died, had a Doughboy tattoo on his leg. But I never had anyone ask me to do them a personal favor.

I turned the text to Laura, my mouth hanging open. She shook her head. “I can’t even with people.”

Here’s a confession—you ready for it?

I share Bruce Banner’s secret as the Hulk: “I’m always angry”—or at least frustrated at people. (But I’m working on it.)


Conversely, I also have a hard time saying no when it’s within my power to help. So I sighed and texted, “What flavor do you like?”

An hour later, we pulled up to her apartment hauling the bike and mint cough drops. Sure enough, there was the SUV in the snow, one tire comically turned off its rim like something from an old Donald Duck cartoon. Laura and I looked at each other, surprised that her story had been true.

When the door opened, out walked an older lady in a red hat, leaning on a cane. I walked over to meet her and held out the bag of cough drops.

“Oh, honey, you don’t know how much this means.” She sliced open a roll of quarters with her fingernail and proceeded to count out the coins. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I knew it. Only a Christian would stop and get cough drops.”

“Only a Christian would stop and get cough drops.”

She told me further about her multiple sclerosis and her husband who is on oxygen. (Strangely enough, I never got her story about how they met because of a bike.) After a few minutes of chatting, I took my money and left.

Later that evening, as we were waiting for coffee to brew, considering the strangeness of the day, the knock on the door startled us. We had just moved to the apartment complex and knew none of our neighbors. Apprehensively, we opened the door to a young woman, her cheeks flushed with the cold.

“Hi.” She shifted from foot to foot. “Do you have any hot chocolate or somethin’? I’ve been sitting out here for like half an hour waiting on my sister and her boyfriend. They bought a mattress from some people upstairs, but it won’t fit in their car. So they went to get rope to tie it down and left me here to watch it.” She pointed behind her on the sidewalk. “It’s really cold.”

No kidding—below 10 degrees that night.

I thought the worst: maybe this was her ploy to get inside and kill us or rob us. I stammered for a few seconds, but I couldn’t say no to her running nose and shivering shoulders, so I swung wide the door.

Maybe this was her ploy to get inside and kill us or rob us.

We poured her a cup of coffee and learned that her name was Burgan. But we didn’t find out much more than that because her sister returned with the rope and she left.

In the closing hours of my birthday, I considered the risk of asking a stranger for cough drops and of knocking on a door for hot chocolate. I would have hacked myself into pneumonia or frozen to a popsicle before I’d relied on the kindness of a stranger.

But my birthday had brought me a gift—the gift to give not once but twice, and not because I was looking to give, but because these two women were brave enough to ask.

What kind of world would we live in if we weren’t afraid to ask strangers for favors?

There are plenty of people who expect help in this world and rely on it. But perhaps there is a shortage of people who will simply ask for it. I’m exhibit A; I detest relying on other people. When we recently moved, I was deeply grateful to the coworker who helped us, but I would have rather lugged every piece of furniture myself than count on someone else.

I assume the real reason is far more offensive.

At the surface of things, my disinclination to ask for help seems to be in my neighbors’ best interest. Sure, I don’t want to inconvenience them or be indebted to them. But I assume the real reason is far more offensive.

I distrust them. I distrust their kindness or even their decency to help without griping about it or judging me for my need or holding the favor in their memory to later call in.

I know I’m not alone. Where a simple “thank you” would have sufficed, I’ve more often heard, “I wouldn’t want you to do that” or “I wouldn’t ask you to do that” or “You shouldn’t have done that” or “I can’t let you do that.” We’ve been conditioned to think of welfare and charity as below us. So we resist help or favors. In most cases, our refusal is intended as a virtue. No societal leeches are we. We earn our own way, and we’re proud of it, thank you very much.

Marjean Holden said, “By asking for help, it’s not that you’re weak; . . .  it’s just allowing somebody else to give their gift.”

But after my birthday encounters, I have to ask myself, Is my self-sufficiency robbing others of the blessing of giving? Can I open my heart and trust my neighbor enough to be vulnerable? Can I, in some small way, help them become better people by allowing them to love me—their neighbor?

I want to be the person that you know you can call upon when you’re in a bind—and the person who isn’t afraid to call upon you when I really need it.

Thank you in advance.





2 Replies to “Cough Drops and Hot Chocolate: What Two Strangers Gave Me on My Birthday”

  1. Sarah!!! This is a fantastic post. Over the years I, too, have tried my best not to need anyone. With one exception. If I need prayer, or a loved one does, I’ll send out a dozen texts or emails, which you can attest to. But that’s the exception.

    Thanks for this post. It really made me think.


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