invisibility

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My daughter, who just turned eleven, has an admirer, a boy from her class. He got her number from another girl, and sent her a text asking her to the dance, this being the very first dance ever. She was flummoxed, particularly since this boy rarely speaks to her directly at school. He is, she tells me, someone who competes with her in math class, ever admiring her speed at getting the answer right. I want her always to be that girl who zings past the know-it-all boys to get that answer right. We talked about how she might respond, telling him that she’ll see him there, that she’s just going with her friends. (She left out the part about how her parents won’t let her even think of boys in that way until she’s at least 40, well ok, 30.) It was sweetness and innocence but a glimpse of the future and how she will have to navigate her way through it.

It’s a cycle, you see, but we don’t really see how the pieces fit together until we’re well past that bend in the road, and even then we see it through the leaves of our own memories and experiences. Life is rich and full of lessons. Ebb and flow. Joy and sorrow. Things we get right and others not so.

Two tales moved me deeply over the last few days. The first was a post by my friend Annie, brave wonderful Annie, who is going through chemo. She just gave in and shaved off the last of her hair and is having a tough time adjusting to this new image, not so much because of what she sees in the mirror (although that’s no doubt a challenge too) but because of the way others react. In her words (full post here):

I wake in the morning and my first thought is never “OMG, another day of this nightmare!” On the contrary, I feel perfectly normal. It’s only when I take my dog for a walk and see people turn away, or flash a sympathetic smile before jogging on…that I remember. Lately I’ve run into folks I used to converse with as our dogs relieved themselves on someone’s succulants. Now they pretend we’ve never met. They still recognize my dog for his prolific leg hike and steady stream, but suddenly I’ve become invisible. It’s as if I’ve come up with a really good Halloween costume.

Her humor and honesty often add levity to her situation, but in this passage all that flew away and we were all left bruised by how cruel we are, usually unintentionally, to one another. It’s rarely out of malice, but more than likely because of discomfort, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Her bald head is like a sign that says “I’m battling illness” and that makes us feel very vulnerable, but it’s not about us, is it? She doesn’t give a damn what you say, there is no right or wrong, but to render her invisible must feel like a deeper blow than any chemo might give her.

We’ve all probably felt it, the shun. I felt it when my mother died and I saw how a few friends (mostly acquaintances) had a hard time acknowledging it, probably because they feared their own parents dying and it was just too close. One even had her husband call to offer her sympathies… I’ve also not been the best support to family members who are ill, the complex weaves of our past together making it difficult to gain purchase in when trying to reach a place where my love can be pure and heartfelt. We are all a bit frightened and all a bit flawed.

A few days after reading Annie’s post and thinking so often about it I saw an incredible documentary called “Mondays at Racine,” the story of two sisters on Long Island who open their beauty salon and their hearts to those battling cancer. Rather than worry about doing the wrong thing they just do. Beautiful. Admirable. Inspiring.

Today I read about Obama’s visit to Newtown after the shootings. The author, Joshua DuBois, describes in this excerpt from his book how the president offered his support to the families, hours spent going from room to room, two families at a time, prepped by his staff only of their names and that of the child lost to them…

I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.

And the funny thing is—President Obama has never spoken about these meetings.

An engulfing hug. “Tell me about…” How simple and from the heart, and with that the invisible becomes real and the clouds part and two people become one, the pain no doubt lessened if only a tiny bit.

Oh, and some M&M’s…like laughter and levity, they always make everything a bit easier to get through.

(image by Bob.Fornal via flickr)

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