Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kindness

"Nan?"

A voice caught me from the end of my driveway.  I can't remember what I was doing--probably telling someone to go inside or stop barking or picking up a piece of trash.  I turned to see Miss Jean standing at the end of the drive, her arm in a sling.  

Miss Jean is my elderly neighbor.  She's 82, and I think she looks great. What I don't like about Miss Jean is that she seems bored.  I had enjoyed her company when I moved in but over the summer I grew annoyed. In early June--unbeknown her her--I lost two close friendships. I experienced such profound feelings of betrayal that sometimes I would just sit at my desk or in the tub or lie in bed and cry like I had never cried in my life. Deep wracking sobs that sounded almost inhuman.  I would choke on my own crying. Even my husband couldn't understand.  

"I thought that you wanted her out of your life."  He was right.  I had grown very weary of a friendship that was with a person so lost in their own life that they evaporated your needs on exposure. But she had been my best friend--my best friend--for seven years. The year before last, we buried her child together, a darling darling bright shining little girl who had been my daughter's best friend in kindergarten and first grade. They were just refreshing their friendship when she died of trauma, crushed by a four wheeler on a country road.  She died twice--once her heart stopped beating--they were told she was gone--and then it started again only to stop forever.  I stood, for a long time, at the copper casket watching the doves fly away--a gift from a friend who released them at funerals and weddings for a living. Off her bird flew, into the sky, from her little brother's arms.  "Hold still, Emily!" He said as he held her bird, the poor creature beating away.  

It turned out that she was a pathological liar of such immense proportions that I was stunned. "I didn't know," I told another friend "that people like that existed," which was true.  I, poor fool.  I, poor fool, who didn't know. It was crippling.

In early October, God said to me, "Forgive her."  I did and I felt myself falling into a parabola of grace. I no longer felt the need to call her names or imagine myself running into her at Sam's, getting the better of her with my wits not dulled by copious amounts of Xanax.  Wouldn't I be glorified pushing of a zinger worthy of my English major's mind?  No.  I wouldn't. 

When I realized that the friendship was over, I drove over to her house to say goodbye to her husband who was home alone. I found out more that night than I ever felt possible, and was away four hours talking with him.I came home to relieve my daughter from babysitting, much later than I expected. Miss Jean must have still been up. 

Miss Jean never knew how broken I was.  I didn't speak to Miss Jean about it. Instead, she called me a few days later and told me "Your children sure stay home a lot alone nowadays, don't they?" It took me aback at the moment, but I let it pass.  Or so I thought.

Over the painful months that followed, my husband and I struggled like we never had before. I had never felt so defeated. We were broke, visiting the church food bank, and wondering when we would see daylight again. My ego was shattered.  How could I have been so naive?  How could I have been so blind?  Didn't I notice she was slow sometimes?  Didn't I put something of it together? How had I missed it all?  Hadn't it been worth all the hours of sacrificing my own work to comfort her in her loss? Would we be so in need now had I not been attending to her needs? 

Then another friend burned up on re-entry, someone I truly held in high esteem. He evaporated like the mist and I still feel the loss no matter if I am at fault or not. (I have been assured I am not). 

Into this whirl of pain I vanished and began to rehear past criticism with ears sharpened by pain. I had always gone out of my way for elderly neighbors. But in the summer when Miss Jean fell ill and lost part of her intestines, I did not visit. I hardened my heart. I felt as if the Earth had turned against me and fell away from kindness like I never had before. I just waved when she called my name in September.  Now Miss Jean stood in my driveway now, in October, telling me about how she had broken her shoulder.  "Didn't you know I was ill this summer?" It was a brief conversation, and left no doubt in my mind that she was telling me how hurt she was by my absence during her time of need.  


On my desk sits a pair of glasses. They are my father's.  They are old fashioned bi-focals and not a bit given to fashion.  He was a big man, and they look small to me now. Weren't they bigger? He lies buried under the lighthouse in Biloxi, in the Air Force cemetery under the flight path of the base's jet planes.  A huge personality in a tiny box. When he died, not a single person from my church called to see how I was.  I received no email, no condolence and no meal.  I was wounded.

Wouldn't you know it, two things happened.  First the Man in Black showed up, my pragmatic and wise-beyond-reason priest, Father John Troy. A modest man, he has a long white beard and a moderately sunny demeanor. He knows things that he does not let on. He is always humble.  He has the air of a man who has learned that the fewer words spoken, the better. He sat at my kitchen table after I poured him some spoiled creamer in his coffee.  I was so embarrassed, but he took it in stride as is his way. He said that the church had let me down and here was a secret: they were going to do it again. But if I would have myself back, he would be so happy to see me, and if I decided to move on, at least I should do so in the faith. I was pelted by the forgetfulness of my brethren. I told him I didn't know if I could.  I went back. I let more than one person Have It. They all replied with such kindness that I couldn't stay angry for long. 

Now Miss Jean looms large on my mind. What would it have benefited her had I just decided to be kind? So she made an inopportune statement. So she mentioned my dog when I told her my father died. Was I not relieved beyond measure that he was out of pain? Was it not an answer to prayer? Was not my relief palatable and did I not tell her to worry, I was so relieved. And now I dig through that moment--how could she mention my dog at such a time? My unwillingness to withstand her early summer slight has led me months back into the year, into things she said out of my nonchalance. Now, in October, slightly shaking, head bent and not staying for conversation, I could see my weakness had wounded her deeply.  I owe poor Miss Jean the truth, no matter how irritated I got over being watched so closely. What would it have meant to her had I obeyed Christ's command and treat those who misuse me with kindness?  And what did I gain by dropping my sword and walking away from such a small wound? I gave Unkindness the field when I shouldn't have. Now there  are two wounds instead of one, and hers is much deeper than mine. She walked away from me visibly upset. She said in her body language what she felt in her heart.  Abandoned. So she was rude. Other people have been rude since and much worse than her. Why nurse a wound against an old lady? Why nurse one against anyone? 

I am busy.  I have to write, I have to study French, I have to read history, I have to care for children. But I owe the world a wound-less heart as much as I am able and that means setting aside both time and feelings to make amends. Bitterness benefits Satan infinitely. We should show him the door through our kindness. 

Monday, May 3, 2010