Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Astonishing light

Photo:  www.messagenote.com
It was a small thing, really.  Just a quick glance, a social smile shared between strangers walking into a building.  He politely held the door in a gentlemanly manner, allowing me to precede him inside. Yet something about him seemed sad to me.  We separated in the foyer of the building, going in opposite directions.  I accomplished the business that I came there to do and walked back outside.

It was a stultifying, hot summer day.  We were in the grip of a killing heat wave and drought at the time, so I wasn't inclined to linger in the parking lot.  Yet, I did linger.  I glanced about and noticed an ornamental park with benches in the shade.  I can't explain why I chose to walk in that direction and sit on one of those benches, but I did it.  The heat was oppressive, so much that not even the wildlife seemed to have the energy to make accustomed nature sounds.  It was quiet in the manner only a humid summer day can be.

Perhaps five minutes after I sat down, steps approached and paused, causing me to look up.  It was the man with the sad eyes, holding two frosty bottles of water.

"Can I join you?" 

I smiled and nodded, and he offered me one of those bottles of water.

"I saw you through the foyer window and thought something cold might be appreciated," he said.

I accepted the kind gesture and we began to chat.  I could tell something was beneath the surface causing his eyes to look sad, but I didn't probe or press.  He was kind and cordial, and the conversation was pleasant.  We discovered a few things in common, discussed the local area, and drank our cold water in the shade, sitting on that park bench.  It occurred to me that I had snacks in my purse and I pulled out two packages of those cheese crackers with peanut butter.  When I offered him one, he appeared to be delighted.

"A feast!" was his comment.  We munched in companionable silence.  Another several minutes passed, with more conversation.

Finally, he looked at me with a very serious expression.

"Today, I was going to go home and turn the gas stove on in my kitchen, blow out the pilot light and let nature take its course.  I felt that I had no other choice.  I went into that building to visit my lawyer and make sure all my legal papers were in order so that my family would be taken care of."

This was the cause of the sadness behind his eyes.  I knew that whatever was happening in his life, I was not qualified to counsel him properly and I said as much.  He smiled, shook his head and placed a hand over my own.

"You're imminently qualified, young lady.  There's a light about you.  A brightness in your smile that you shared with me when we both walked into that building.  You didn't have to even look at me, but you took a moment to acknowledge me...and really SEE me.  It mattered, and I wanted to thank you.  I was hoping I would see you before you left that building.  And somehow, I got lucky."

We talked some more, and he revealed that his business had failed due to the lagging economy.  His house went into foreclosure and he wasn't able to continue to pay for his two kids' college tuition.  I didn't have a lot of advice to offer; mostly, I just listened.  He was a lovely man. Clearly intelligent, well spoken, obviously very well mannered, and just as obviously tormented on a very elemental level.  We did not know one another at all, save for that unexpected meeting at the front door of an office building, and a shared impromptu drink and snack on a park bench.  For me, it was a moment to simply be there for another person who was troubled.  I never once felt uncomfortable, or pressed to create a miracle.  I didn't have that  power.  This man's life was in an admittedly challenging place.  I doubted seriously that anything I could offer could make much of a difference.  What I did know was that listening was something I could do.  So, that's what I did.

We lingered there for about 90 minutes, in that humid summer day.  I refrained from using the word "should" in any part of that conversation, simply because I strongly felt that he didn't need to hear what I thought he should do.  I figured he had probably heard many "you should's" as he struggled to cope with the challenges in his life.  I did ask him to seek some form of counseling, because the thought of this very kind man ending his life alone, defeated and sad was heart breaking.  I also asked him to take my phone number and promise me that he would text me, at the very least, for the next five days, so that I knew he hadn't given in to the temptation of his earlier plan to end his life.  He agreed to this request.

Eventually, our conversation ended.  We sat in silence and he finally looked at me and smiled again.  To my eyes, it appeared that the sadness had eased somewhat behind his eyes.

He stood and offered a firm handshake, then gathered the debris of our water bottles and snack wrappers.  He took them to a garbage can, then returned to walk with me towards our cars in the parking lot.

I wanted to hug him, but refrained because I didn't want to presume or cause any awkwardness.  We stopped at my car and I smiled and reminded him of his promise to text me for five days.

"I will do that.  In return, I want you to promise me that if a day hits for you in the future where you feel sad, or defeated, or that you're not making a mark on the world, promise me that you'll call me.  Maybe then I can return the favor.  You made a difference today, and you did it with a smile and being a genuinely beautiful person.  God bless you."

And with that, he put a hand briefly on my shoulder, then he walked away to his own car.  In the proceeding five days, I received a single text each day that said, simply, "I'm still here."  On the sixth day, the text that came said, "I'm smiling again."

These days, he occasionally sends a random text, and we have developed a friendship that is solid.  I have met his family; his children are now back in college, and he and his wife are in a stable living situation.  He is in a different career and seems to be recovering well.

Why am I relating this story?  I don't know.  I actually thought that I would never share it on a public level.  I never felt it was my story to reveal.  And for the most part, I remain devoted to protecting this friend's privacy by not giving his name or any other personal information.  The other day, I read a quote on Facebook that has always been one of my favorites.  It was on my sidebar on my Facebook page and it was from the "On this day in 2010, this was your status..." section.

This is what my status was on that day in 2010:

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. - Hafiz
Obviously, I found that quote to be beautiful when I posted it to my Facebook wall in 2010, and when I saw the repeat post on my sidebar, I was prompted to share this story.  I posted the quote again on my Facebook wall, and added this comment:

*How's that for a good reminder of our own beauty?* 
I didn't have any special skills, or any magical answers for this gentleman that I met unexpectedly that summer day.  Something...a set of circumstances...brought us together and I was led to take the steps that I did.  Happily, they resulted in a positive outcome, with not only this man choosing a different outcome, but with a genuine friendship that continues to this day.  The above Hafiz quote was a good reminder to me that many times, we're given chances to make a difference.  And sometimes, that difference can occur just from sharing that "astonishing light of our own being".  Sometimes, many times, that alone is more than enough to make a profound difference.