I am pushing a grocery cart with my three noisy daughters through the canned pop section of Wal-mart. I feel like the monkeys have been let out of the zoo and have instead found a temporary home in the cage of my cart. While trying to maintain a semblance of decorum, I bend down to adjust the box of grape canned pop on the bottom wire rack.
When I straighten, I see her. An old acquaintance from a few years back. She is pushing past me with her own teenage daughter in tow, looking to be in a hurry and not appearing at all interested in chatting. I duck again to check on things below my cart then catch her eye just as she passes me on the end of another aisle.
"Hey there," I call out, trying to catch her attention, yet still hoping for a quick getaway. "How are things?"
"Oh, um...well; we're just, er...we're getting a few things," she says.
Eyes dart, hands flutter. She wants to avoid me.
I can tell this is so, yet I am surprised that she is so uncomfortable seeing me. Truth be told, I want to avoid her too, as this is a delay in the busy shopping schedule. It has been a long day. I'm tired, but still I push a cart with two little monkeys in it, and one older walking beside. The three of them are hungry, thirsty and weighing my cart down with the sheer heaviness of their spastic energy. I try to avoid looking at my children, while I smile widely at her. I hope for a quick response, and then I'll be on my way.
"How are the kids?" I ask. She gives an answer. Or two. Both are short and vague. I know she wants this conversation to be over, but I just can't help myself. I pointedly ask her one other:
"How are you doing?"
For the first time, she looks into my eyes, and I can now see the pain that lies in pools behind the trite answers and abrupt responses of moments ago. She looks with eyes that are pleading for me to stop now and run, or prepare for the worst.
I stand my ground. A river pours out from her soul.
Her little boy would have been almost two. The anniversary of his birthday is just a few short days away, she says. The loss is still all too real. The pain has subsided enough so that she can talk about it in short spurts without crying. She has so many questions, and there are so many unknowns. He was a full-term baby. He should never have died. Not in this day and age, with the advances in medicine.
As I listen, I feel a loss of control over my own sense of reason. I have no answers, no responses that befit the magnitude of her grief. I can only listen, and even then I feel so inadequate. How can I, a mother of four healthy, vibrant children, help another mother deal with the death of a full-term baby boy? And do so in the grocery aisle of Walmart, nonetheless.
As she talks, I think about my purpose and that a higher power must have planned for me to be right here, right now in this very spot, because I can see that she is clinging to this conversation we are having as if it were a lifeline. We were meant to speak. I have no answers, and I certainly have never been through this private hell; and yet, I can offer her an empathic ear to listen and give my own mother's heart over to share her pain, if for but a moment.
And so we talk. She cries out her sorrow, and I simply listen. We stand in the canned soft drink aisle, and while she leans against the shelf, she shares her soul. I want to say something that will take away the sting. What can one say to all of this?
I will never know what purposes the mind of God might have for me in each day and each moment. Truly, I have no answers for her tonight, in this quiet moment. I am at a loss for words. How can a good God allow pain and death to one so precious as a newborn baby? Why is evil permitted to remain in this world? How can we reconcile our faith and our reality? How do we ever move on? How can we keep our faith from crumbling? Can we ever regain the faith we lose when life rips our heart from our chest? These are questions for which I have no immediate answers.
We part with an embrace, but then meet again as we both go through the same cash register. As I walk out beside her to the parking lot, she gives me a warm hug.
"Thanks for listening, and not trying to explain everything," she says. "Most people try to give me answers."
I am wondering right now if part of the purpose of pain is to reveal our fragility, but still to let it teach others about empathy in spite of those experiences. Perhaps pain in life is less about us, and more about others, for our pain is a channel by which we are able to connect our experiences with those experienced by others. In doing so, we are able to make sense of our world and our faith. Or, at the very least accept the reality of here and now and find the faith to do so. And the best response to pain is perhaps to acknowledge it, but not always feel the need to try and explain it.
I get in bed with my own two daughters tonight, and snuggle under the covers. They giggle as if this is a great joke. I put my arms around their warm, little bodies and draw them close. I listen to their stories, their little girl voices full of laughter. I am aware that this is a gift. It may not always be mine to hold, but it will always be in my heart. They are mine for now, these precious treasures, and for tonight I will bring them close to me so as to not let them slip away.
I have been reminded again tonight, in the aisles of Walmart's foods department, that life is a fragile, fleeting gift. One might not have the words to explain it, nor the depth of understanding required to unlock its mysteries, but we all can purpose within ourselves to never let our hearts take life and love for granted.
That is the best kind of advice that I can think to give.