the stories we carry close to the heart

coffee cups. stories heart

i was late getting to the old maple table this morning. late, because i was drawn to another kitchen table before i could get to my own. some mornings are like that. some hours are like that.

i was drawn to a table where a mother i love wanted to talk. fueled on fresh-poured coffee, the tears soon enough flowed. the mother to whom i was talking buried her beautiful daughter just 20 months ago. we talked about grief, and the state of the heart after the dying. she talked about her blessing, the blessing of her daughter having had the time to wrestle her demons, and make peace before dying. she talked about another mother’s absence of blessing. a mother whose daughter was knocked dead in the dark of night, at a bitter cold bus stop, when a drunk driver — one who forgot to turn on the headlights of her car when she tumbled out of a tavern and slumped behind the wheel — drove into a tangle of college kids on the snow-piled side of a road, and so the mother of the beautiful girl who died — a “songbird,” my friend called her — never got the chance to have the last conversation you’d have if you knew in your heart this was the last. she worried that the last conversation between the other mother and child might have been more of the sort that mothers and children so often have: “did you remember to make your reservations for spring break?” “don’t forget to check your mailbox, i’m sending the boots you left under your bed.” or, maybe: “oh, sweetie, why don’t you just tell your friends how tired you are, and stay in and catch up on sleep tonight?”

the thing is, if you bumped into my friend in the grocery store, if you watched her tossing bunches of kale into her cart, while tossing rejoinders over her shoulder, witticisms that made anyone in earshot break into giggles (because she is that funny, and most often in high animation), you’d never in a million years guess how much heartache she’s borne. you’d not know that, after four hellish years battling the rarest of cancers, she buried that daughter, and has a son who won’t ever walk, nor utter a word, and whose meals are zipped in a blender and poured in a tube that goes straight to his belly.

my friend is but one of the ones who carries a story, a volume of stories, close to the heart.

she’s not alone. we all have a story. every day, chances are, there is one something weighting us down, bearing against our chest in ways that make it harder to breathe. it’s not always life shattering, but it might be the sort of worry that infuses even your sleep, wakes you up with a start, spares you no break from its drumbeat.

this week, on one particularly extraordinary morning, i found myself amid a circle of women who, one by one, let on that they too carried a story. and that’s what got me to thinking about how many of the myriad souls we bump up against in the course of the day are waging some unspoken battle, the likes of which we’ll never know. never imagine.

and thus, as wise philo of alexandria, the greek-speaking jewish philosopher, instructed: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

there was, first, the woman i’ve known for years, though not too terribly well. i’d once written a newspaper story about the children’s choir she long ago ran with clockwork precision. then, years later, when i wrote about my own mother’s breast-cancer battle, that same woman reached out and wrote how she, too, had been diagnosed the very same week, and knew by heart the battle. when i bumped into her just this week, she was sporting two very black eyes. she’d fallen, she said, changing a light bulb. seems after three bouts with cancer, she’d developed some bizarre syndrome that left her numb from the waist down — and apparently, it hasn’t much slowed her. and it was only in passing that she mentioned something about her son, mentioned for the very first time that he was quadriplegic.

“oh my gosh,” i interjected, “you have a son who is quadriplegic? was it an accident?”

she answered, softly, but hardly a whisper: “failed suicide. he was a freshman in high school. thirty-five years ago.”

i inhaled a very big prayer as i soaked in her words.

and then, just minutes later, after eggs and coffee were served, after i’d turned to my right, continued talking to a lovely woman i’d met three months earlier, this woman mentioned matter-of-factly that her upper chest was sore, and she’d be heading home to ice it. i asked if she’d pulled a muscle. “no,” she said, “i was diagnosed with breast cancer just before christmas. i had a double mastectomy four weeks ago.” and all morning, i’d only been thinking how elegant a figure she cut, with her sleek gold-buttoned black suit, her streaked-blonde bob, and her eloquent animated conversation.

we never know the stories carried close to the heart.

we never know when we’re sitting next to a woman who, day in and day out, worries about a son who can’t move a muscle. and who got there from the depths of unspeakable pain.

we don’t know that from the time we last spoke to someone till the moment we’ve once again bumped into that someone, she’s suffered the full-throttle blow of life turned on its spine: being told she has cancer, weighing the options and outcomes, and being wheeled off to surgery that will forever alter her God-given life-bearing body.

when you’re listening, when you keep your ear to the heart, these stories come and come swiftly. the calls from the doctor. the unexpected email. the squawk from the bedside radio, first thing in the morning. the reminder, over and over and over: these hours are precious, are holy. live as if each moment matters. because, the truth is, it does. and walk in radiant grace because we’ve really no clue who in our path is shattered, and broken, and deeply in need of the life-giving love with which we might bathe their wounds. or embolden their march into battle.

oh, goodness. it was either write about what really stirred me this week, or count up the 50 ways to really, truly tell someone you love them (in light of tomorrow’s feast of love, valentine’s day). seems i went with the truly stirring. forgive the darkness. the point is the light: the instruction to hold each hour, each encounter, each blessed someone, up to the radiance. life will come without pause, without bumpers to soften the blow. the instrument of healing, of love, is ours and ours alone: we can choose to tend with tender loving care. we can choose to be ever aware of who among us might bear more than we can imagine. we can lighten their load, and pray to God the favor’s returned when the load that needs bearing is ours. 

how are you stirred by philo’s instruction: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”? or, alternately, might you tell a bit about the unwitting saints who’ve lightened your load at the very moment when it all seemed unbearable?