The Kindness of a Stranger

kindness

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”               ~ Mother Theresa

The reality of my mother in law’s condition smacks me in the face every time we visit Florida. Separated by over 700 miles in Tennessee, I can put the starkness of our family’s loss out of my mind most of the year. She is truly my “other mother”. I am the daughter she never had.

Visiting makes me cry. The big ugly cry. Until you can’t breath out of your nose cry.

It would be easier if her house wasn’t a time capsule of her last minutes in it before the move to the nursing home. A pair of shorts hanging on a hook behind the bathroom door. The make-up on the counter ready-to-use. Clothes with tags still on them behind the bedroom door. It’s been three years……..

I spend as much time with her as I can when we come down for our summer “vacation.” I fill her in on family news, talk about old times, and find out her immediate needs even thought she can’t really answer me. I do what I hope someone will do for me in the future. Just be there. Just love her.

On special occasions, my father in law arranges for a cab, one equipped for wheelchairs, to transport her from the nursing home to the house about thirty minutes away.

There’s precious few hours. I think maybe being home will help her, jog her mind, but she seems anxious and ready to leave too soon. “Is there anything you would like to see in the house?” I ask. No……… nothing. I see a few pictures across the room and bring them over. One is an 80’s photo of her husband. What? You want to take that with you? Yes, she does.

Three hours later the cab arrives driven by a big bear of a black man. He rolls her out and my father in law gets in the front to ride back with them. I look inside to see her. She’s clutching the plastic bag from the nursing home that now contains the treasured photo.

Bye! I love you! I call to her and wave.

As the driver walks around to close the back hatch, my face crumples. He sees me and comes closer. My face falls into his chest and I stand with this kind stranger and cry with his strong arm on my shoulders. He says, I know. You have no idea how well I know. And he holds me and I try to stop the sobs that rise up and break through the surface of my soul.

Look, you can’t let the kids see you cry, he says. I step away and wipe my eyes. Look, I’m a funny monkey! And he starts jumping around, making noises, acting silly.

Thank you, I manage weakly and smile.

They drive off. I am touched by the kindness of a stranger. A stranger with a broken heart that doesn’t let his kids see him cry. I know without a doubt he spoke to me what he tells himself.

So, it’s important to love your family and your friends, but it might even surpass it all to love a stranger with kindness.

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What the Locusts have Eaten

“The Lord says, ‘I will give you back what you lost to the stripping locusts, the cutting locusts, the swarming locusts, and the hopping locusts. It was I who sent this great destroying army against you.'” ~ Joel 2:25, NLT

locusts

Four kinds of locusts, four kinds of harm and desolation. Four ways to think about the damage evil is allowed to do to us and those we love from within and without. To me though, knowing that God sent it would be completely devastating without tempering that knowledge with the fact that God loves us and has a purpose in everything.

The stripping locusts take from us what we love or what we need. What has been taken from you? Was it your innocence as a child? Your loved one? Health? When things are taken from us, that are part of us, little pieces like bites are taken out of our hearts.

The cutting locusts take away our bearings, leave us swaying without a foundation. Circumstances out of our control make us feel like broken twigs tossed about only to be crushed underfoot. Pieces of our lives lie scattered, disorganized, unrecognizable.

The swarming locusts are the outside stresses that dog pile everyday. They fly so thick you can’t breathe without swallowing a mouthful and choking. The air is black and blinding. You can’t even move.

The hopping locusts are the redundant, repetitive annoyances that just won’t go away. If it happens ONE MORE TIME you will lose it. Or if it happens ONE MORE DAY you don’t think you can take it.

Lastly, I don’t know why the locusts are sent. It makes me think of Job who also wondered why.  His “friends” said his calamities were all his fault, a judgment against him. God never told him the reason. When God did speak, it was of his greatness as Creator. That was Job’s answer. That was enough. In other words, He is enough.

I pray right now that God will restore what the locusts have eaten in your life. If not soon, may you have the grace and strength to endure, which is also given by the One who restores and redeems. He is enough.

Scylla and Charybdis

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I hate 3 am. The hands of the clock touch that time and I am transported.

I lie between Scylla and Charybdis. Problems I didn’t know I even had appear out of nowhere. My bed is my little boat and it is tossed, not by waves, but by my restless heart. It is dark and I am fearful. Dramas unfold in my mind where I accuse myself and others of wrongs. I feel pain more acutely than ever I did in waking hours. My lids tire from squeezing the eyes shut, so they open and see shapeless forms around me that don’t look like furniture anymore.

It is the time of unsleep and unrest. It is a taste of what an eternity of painful suspended animation would feel like. It is the torment of aloneness with a brain that fights against being comforted. I have buried in the hold of my little floundering ship the knowledge of my Comfort, because a wickedness down deep doesn’t believe that He really helps me.

I only pass through this Straight of Night three ways: Either I am dashed against Scylla’s rocks and unconsciousness finally captures me, Charybdis sucks me down into deeper despair in her tumultuous whirlpool, or I grasp at the rope thrown to me by my Heavenly Comforter. My hold is always weak on that rope of words:             YouwillneverleavemeYouwillalwayslovemeYouwillworkthisawfulmessintosomethinggoodsomehow.

Rest comes after the Word-rope pulls me to safety. Slowly, the little boat-bed stops rocking and settles in the calm water. The best sleep comes at this time.

Really restful sleep.

Beauty Matters

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“Lily’s Chair” original oil painting by Gwendolyn Rodriguez, all rights reserved.

“Beauty is powerful. It may be the most powerful thing on earth. It is dangerous. Because it matters.” ~ John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating.

I am a woman.

I am a painter.

I am a painter of women.

Why? Being asked to participate in a show called, “Women Painting Women,” makes me pause and reflect on my purpose as an artist, specifically why I choose women as my primary subjects. A huge influence in my work comes from the book quoted above, written from the Christian perspective.

When I look at a woman, I see myself, my sister, my daughter, my mother, and then as through a dim looking-glass…………my first mother, Eve. I see a garden. I see the last crowning touch God created in the most beautiful, perfect place. Adam was not created in Eden, but outside, and then brought in.

She was Beauty literally personified.

Now we women, her legacy, who are here now, are a whisper of that garden. I don’t know about you, but around me I see no garden: I see pain, disease, death. I see hunger. Sometimes the hunger is more spiritual than physical. Beauty is food for the soul.

Eve means “life”. So, in addition to her nature as Beauty, she is also Life or Life-Giver, a reflection of her as an image of God. There is an old adage, “Where there is life, there is hope.” Women give and sustain life in more ways than just having children, though that comes to mind first. That is why we find it especially grievous to hear of a mother taking her child’s life. It goes against what we feel in our hearts to be the sacred trust of the Life-Giver: to hold it as ever precious. Many of my paintings show mothers with their children or babies. They may look weary, but I hope I show love binding them, making the drudgery of one more day possible.

So, beauty does matter, just like life matters. We need both and we hunger for both. I hope that when someone looks at my paintings of women, that for a moment at least, that hunger is satisfied. That longing and yearning for the perfect garden, however, can’t be quenched in this life. I hope that my paintings reflect a truth that if there is even a trace of Beauty and Life now, there will be completion and restoration in the future by the great Lover of our Souls.

(Artwork above is by me, Gwendolyn Rodriguez, “Lily’s Chair”, oil, 2013. Additional art can be seen at http://www.gwendolynrodriguez.com/)

Sticky, Perforated People

A bottle of water spilled on a valuable booklet lying in my car. At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it, but the next day I assessed the damage. Everything was cemented together. I put my finger between a few of the pages and gingerly tried to separate them.

They ripped. They tore. It was a mess.

When I lost my stepdad, I thought about that booklet. When you care about people, the love cements them into your life. They die and their page is ripped out of your book. It isn’t clean and the other pages that were stuck get ripped too.

I have amazingly bad luck tearing perforated coupons out of newspapers and magazines. I can never tear them out perfectly into their nice predesigned rectangles. I present them to the cashier with jagged edges and bizarre organic shapes. When someone dies, I have to give him to God. I dig through my purse-life and reluctantly, slowly, painfully give the jagged-edged person, who has bits of me stuck all around the edges, over to the Great Cashier.

The only thing that helps me is believing that this is not the end. God will wipe away every tear from my eye when I see Him. He is going to actually touch my face and wipe the tears away. Then He will put all the broken and torn pieces back together.

Back to the future

It was real. I was really there in Kirchsteinbek, a suburb of Hamburg. The day’s outing was over and I stepped off the bus at just the right place.

Twenty-five years earlier I got off the bus at this same stop, loaded down with school books. I was a fearful girl then, unsure of my life. What did I believe? Who was I? It was a year of getting to know myself, an American teenager in Germany. I worked incredibly hard at learning the language. I had an ear for it; I could converse almost flawlessly – until that is, I totally lost myself in an impossibly contorted sentence and forgot which verb to put at the end. And in my intense desire to appear to fit in, I would rather stay silent than risk the chance of making a grammatical mistake.

But an eighteen-year-old didn’t get off the bus this time. It was the next-to-last day of my visit back to the place of those memories, and a forty-three-year-old wife and mother stepped down to begin the walk “home”. I had talked for hours that day with my host brother, Henning. I hadn’t cared a bit if anyone heard my American accent, or if I’d gotten a word wrong, here and there. It had been a great day. Now, I was headed back to the Fitschen’s house. Hundreds of times I had walked that stretch before.

Everything was so familiar….. Suddenly, I was young again! I closed my eyes, my heart beat faster. I was that girl again. All the years ahead! A whole lifetime! But what was contained in those years? It came rushing upon me – scenes and faces, swirling around me. I felt the burning in my throat of suppressed sobs, for they were crying faces, screaming faces – mine, filled with grief.

When I had walked this way years before, I had a brother, I had a whole family, I had an unbroken body. Between this walk and the last one, they were gone. Years had stolen them.

Then, other faces took their place: Three babies, my husband.

There was no separating the pain and the joy. They were joined like an object in a picture lit brightly on one side, yet deeply shaded on the other. One object, one life: My life.

I can’t take away the bad, without doing away with the good. If it could be any other way, I would choose it.

So that is life. I can choose every day to live in the lit side, or in the shadow. It is only one small step from one to the other.

Great expectations

I am excited about my trip to Germany this coming week. The ticket was a gift from my former German host mother from long ago when I was eighteen and stupid. Ten days of no set agenda, no prior obligations, no parenting responsibilities. I have great expectations.

I’ve been thinking about expectations – why some are high, and others low. Unmet expectations are the stuff of disappointment . This, I feel, is the root of my “really, really bad day” last week.

Why do I expect certain things? Because of experience grounded in reality. I expect that I will rarely see the sun during a Tennessee winter, I will need a cup of coffee every morning, and I’ll have to wipe my old Boston Terrier’s butt when she comes in from outside.

I don’t get angry or disappointed with Tennessee, rant or rave when we inevitably run out of coffee, or fuss at “Bunny” for being a little on the incontinent side. In the reality of my life I have come to expect these happenings.

My view of people is, however, rooted in more than just experience. There is a deeper core of knowledge – an instinct of appropriateness of behavior – that is universal: A mother should love her baby and nurture it, a husband should protect his family, animals should be fed and cared for by their owners. News of domestic abuse of children or animals arouses indignation, horror, and pity. We could ask why we are bothered by this? Doesn’t our experience with real life tell us that it happens over and over, year after year? Isn’t it natural? Expected? Why hasn’t the fact that this is inevitable and constant in life eliminated my disappointment in this kind of behavior?

I personally believe that it is because what used to be good is now gone wrong. A world once created perfect, is now flawed. And everybody knows it. How else can you account for the fact that what we consider good behavior is often what goes against our natural instinct? Yet, this is what a hero does. A hero runs into the burning building to save the little child. A hero throws his body over a grenade and saves his platoon. A hero doesn’t eat, but gives her only food to her children. A hero works three jobs and keeps a roof over his family’s head. A hero faces another day of chemotherapy. A hero does what we know is truly right. We feel the rightness of it down in our very gut, though recognizing that it is a rightness that should be easy, but isn’t.

Why did no one seek to comfort me and my kids for that miserable hour, alone but in the middle of a busy front lobby last week? Because it was the natural thing, the easy thing to look away. Why did that disappoint me? Because in my heart, I know that people were created to be heroes every day, but we can’t do it any more. We’ve been letting other people down and ourselves since a terrible day long ago when two people, in a beautiful garden, decided that God didn’t really mean what He said. They could do better, they thought.

Just look at us, your children.

All we have left is a knowing, deep inside, that it is supposed to be better than this. We are supposed to be better than this.