Unlikely Fortitude.

2 August, 2008 § Leave a comment

The epiphany came as I crossed over the creaking boards in the hallway into my kitchen again after borrowing a red-handled screwdriver from my neighbor in Apartment Number Three, Margaret. She had opened her door wide and without hesitation to my tentative knock, her wrinkled cheeks flushed with the heat rising off of her gas stovetop and her straggly white hair falling out of the tidy bun at the back of her head. Her tremulous hands were constantly in motion, folding a recently cleaned house-dress, stirring a bubbling pot, turning the water in the kitchen sink off; she maintained a steady stream of chatter the whole time. “I’m off to go visit my sister in the hospital again,” she confided. “This time, though, I’ve learned to pack in layers; I only brought enough clothes for three days but stayed an entire week last time, and I caught a real chill sitting next to my sister’s bed in the hospital room. And they say it’s supposed to be room-temperature in there!”

She paused in her gracefully wavering movements for a moment to offer me a smile of camraderie as if to say, But I’m sure you know how that goes, and before I realized it, a wave of loving concern swept over me for a woman I barely know. Her house has a well-lived-in look – – as it should, I discovered last week when we chatted on the front porch while hanging up our respective loads of laundry on the rope strung from the ceiling, for Margaret has lived here for over thirty-three years – – and yet it is strangely bereft of photos, scribbled notes, or other mementos of family memories and messes so gladly take up space in a home.

She has no family of her own to keep her company, to put away her laundry for her, and to cover her fridge door with grocery lists and smiling photographs and the sticky fingerprints of grandchildren. Instead of Christmas cards from her children or bumpy kindergarten projects taken from her daycare service, all Margaret has hung up with a solitary magnet is one thank-you card from her young neighbor in return for a plate of warm muffins brought over when I moved in across the hall three months ago.

And that’s when I realized: it hurts to know as much as it is fearful to be known. O yes, some would say that I am confusing love with knowledge, but isn’t knowledge the greatest of all loves? For it is when you know someone deeply enough to appreciate their strength, recognize their flaws, and accept the combination thereof that you are truly able to love. And when you love, you are able to know blinding hurt and heart-wrenching loss as well as to know unexpected joy and overwhelming pride. When you know someone so deeply that you accept every thing that makes them them, an aching wave of love washes over you until you wish you could reach out and transfer the burning heat of it through your comforting touch, if only just to say, You are known; I will not forget you.

I squeezed her hand. “Margaret,” I said, my eye captured by the neat row of crocheted pot-holders hanging on the wall above her head, the carefully watered green plants soaking in the sun on the window sill, and the solitary card with my familiar handwriting magneted to her humming fridge. “Will you please let me know if I can do anything to help?” She patted my wrist gently in return, the crinkly feel of her skin strangely warm on my own, and said softly, “I will, honey.”

Now, after gently swinging my yellow door shut behind me, I rest my forehead against the coolness of my kitchen cupboards, and wait for the stinging behind my eyelids to abate. O Lord, I think, half to myself and half to that waiting Presence, I did not realize it would feel like this. This is what it is to be broken by the unfairness of a world where one brave elderly woman who spends her days writing letters of loving encouragement to surly high school children, who catches a cold at her failing sister’s bedside, and who offers plates of five or six different kinds of baked goods as a tangible encouragement when unexpected death strikes at a neighbor’s family is forgotten about by her own relatives. This is what it is to have your perception of another changed so irrevocably that it changes your own life. This is knowing.

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