“Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian MacLaren
In the days leading up to Glenna’s transfer to inpatient hospice our kitchen sink backed up. The threads on the clean out in the basement were stripped making it impossible to open it and clear the pipe. This of course meant a trip to the home improvement store to acquire fun things like a reciprocating saw blade that can cut through cast iron. (For the record, I suggested to Noel that we call someone just this one time, but with so many intractable things happening in our life I think Noel needed to tackle something fixable.) Noel went to the store and was greeted by one of the workers asking how he was. His mom was dying and he was responsible for making all the hard decisions, his house was full of relatives, and his kitchen sink was closed for business and overflowing with dirty dishes. Without even thinking, Noel honestly responded, “Terrible, and you?” and the worker enthusiastically replied, “Great! Thank you!” Noel then went to the plumbing section where he stared at pipes till he no longer felt like crying.
Small talk was one of the hardest things to navigate during the four months Glenna lived with us. Those questions I usually answered reflexively suddenly stopped me in my tracks. When you’ve spent the early morning hours trouble shooting an oxygen concentrator because your mother-in-law can’t breathe, you are not fine. Not even close. But do you burden other people with that, people that probably just wanted to exchange pleasantries and be on their way? I knew the “socially appropriate” thing to do was automatically respond, “Fine and you?” without a second thought, but it feels like lying and I’ve never been a very good liar. I decided to be honest, but avoid baring my soul and when someone asked “How are you” I’d reply with something simple like, “It’s been a rough morning.” It was a good way to test the waters. If someone really wanted to know how you were, they’d pause and give a response that let you know they were really listening, but if they were just performing a social ritual they’d reply, “Mondays, right?!?” and move right along their way. I will always be incredibly grateful for those people that listened. It didn’t have to be a long heart emptying conversation, that would be totally inappropriate with say, the dad with the mustache whose name I don’t know or the Lowe’s employee, just a simple, “I’m sorry” was enough to acknowledge the fact that we were real, hurting people. In an article by the head of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke, it says that in many Muslim cultures the equivalent of our “how are you” is “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” I love the genuine sentiment of that question so much more than our trite small talk. As the author pointed out, asking, answering, and listening in that manner “help[s us] remember that [we] too [are] full and complete human being[s].”
There’s a tendency, I think, to want everyone to feel sad when we are sad. We want the whole world to stand still and cry with us when things aren’t going right. If we can’t be happy we don’t want anyone else to be. I’ve certainly felt that way, but I’m also learning that I don’t actually want that. There were times during Glenna’s stay with us that I just couldn’t hear any more bad news. When my pregnant sister had a scare where they thought there were genetic abnormalities with her baby I thought my heart might break. I just wanted something to go right for someone. The same day the sink was backed up, my brother got engaged. My heart was hurting so much because of everything that was happening in my life, but I was also so happy for him. It was almost unfathomable that those two emotions – joy and sadness – could coexist in my heart, but there they were. I was glad that things were going well for my brother and his fiancé. I was glad that not everything in the world was terrible. In Romans 12:15 we read that we should “weep with them that weep” but we are also supposed to “rejoice with them that do rejoice.” I’ve typically thought of those two scenarios as being distinctly separate, but life is complicated and sometimes we get to do both simultaneously.
Years ago, I read an essay where a woman wrote about having a stillborn baby. Describing the period of time when she was told her baby most likely passed, she said, “He had died the day before on November 10, 2012, sometime on Saturday morning. I was reading People magazine in bed. My cousin turned 29. I had pumpkin pie for breakfast. I often think like that now. I may be having a cup of coffee or taking a shower, but somewhere; it’s the worst moment in someone’s life.” Those lines have stuck with me and I’ve thought about them often over the years. At first I always thought of them with a certain amount of guilt, wondering who was suffering while I was having an effortless day. Worrying, even, that it was happening right under my nose. As I’ve collected hardships and joys, large and small, in my three decades on earth I’ve marveled about how life is such a crazy mix of emotions – the ups and downs of our lives individually and collectively all tangled up together. So as terrible as it is to know that someone is having one of the worst moments in their life as I type this, I try to remember that at the same time someone else is having the best moment of theirs. It reminds me that life isn’t just sorrow and gives me hope that those in their worst moments will get a turn at the best moments a little later.
I mentioned in the backstory that I had the feeling at the beginning of this that we would never be the same. I really hope that we won’t. As we’re trying to find our way back into “normal” I’m realizing how easy it is to slip back into old habits and comfortable routines. Some of which are fine, but some too easily create self-absorbed static in my life that makes it hard to hear what other people’s hearts are whispering. I don’t want to be the old me, I want to be a new me that embraces celebration and graciously consoles sorrow. I want to acknowledge others as complete human beings and I want to be one too.