Sometimes I am privileged to hear personal stories during the course of a day. Here are two about life’s sorrows and hopes. Although details have been slightly changed for privacy reasons, these stories are true.
I had just returned from caring for dad. His house-calls doctor had examined him and was on her way out the door when I asked about her next patient.
“She’s only 29 and bedridden. Multiple sclerosis. She is unable to do anything for herself.”
My heart winced.
“Does she have anyone to care for her?” I asked.
“Her father only. Her mother died. Actually, she died this time last year.”
Once again the eternal “why” to the Divine rattled around in my soul and heart. I came back to my place and felt the need for the sadness in me to ground itself into the earth. So I took a walk.
The evening sky was painted with pewter-and-purple hues and the air was brisk and stung my lungs. I shoved my hands deep into my coat pockets and couldn’t help thinking about this young woman, about my own father, about so many others I know right now who are struggling with health issues, with finances, with painful life challenges.
I struggled to pray but words stuck in my throat and soul. Nothing felt genuine in my petitions and I felt no consolation or words of encouragement from on high or within.
What I needed was hope. There seemed to be so little of it these days, in the lives of so many I knew, in our world, in me.
As I walked, I bumped into one of my neighbors, an elderly woman, sitting on a bench. We began chatting and she could tell I was a bit troubled.
“Have a minute?” she asked. “Sit down. I have a story to tell you.”
She had been in her late 20s when her husband had walked out on her for another woman, leaving her with two small children. Her apartment lease was up and she had to be out the end of December. She had no place to live, had a meager income and was desperate.
She walked to the nearby Catholic church, empty and cold, and walked past the rows of pews down the aisle and knelt in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“On my knees, I prayed and prayed and told her, ‘You are a mother. You understand. Please help me. Help my children. We have no place to live and we have to be out of our apartment soon. I have nowhere to go. Help me, please. Help my children.”
And she began to weep. To sob.
“As I was crying, I heard a noise behind me,” she said. “I turned around and saw an elderly man standing there. The church was empty so I thought he must be the sacristan or janitor and he was there to clean up the church before Christmas.”
He looked at her with great concern and love, she recalls, and he said, “I can see that you’re troubled.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief.
“Here. Wipe your tears. You’re going to be OK. I promise you.”
She looked at the strange man and managed a smile through moist eyes. She turned her head to dry her tears and intended to return the handkerchief to this stranger.
“But when I looked behind me,” she told me, “there was no one there. He was gone. How could he have left so quickly?”
As she walked back down the aisle, she saw a woman mopping the floors in the back of the church.
“Did you see a man just now or going out the door?” she asked. “Just a few seconds ago.”
The woman said she had seen no one, that no one had been in the church for the last hour.
When my neighbor went to her job the next day, a co-worker saw an ad in the newspaper for a nearby apartment. The landlord had specified no children, but when he met with her he told her it wouldn’t be a problem. He also told her she could move in right away and he would reduce the first month’s rent.
She began to cry in thanksgiving and then remembered the handkerchief the man had given her. She took it out of her coat pocket. In one of the corners she read an embroidered message: Love one another.
“I’m telling you this story because it’s true,” she said, smiling at me. “And because you look like you could use some hope. God and the angels are always with us. Don’t lose hope.”
I thanked her, tears now swimming in my eyes, and continued my walk.
Life will always be filled with sorrows, I told myself. With life challenges that will stretch our hearts and spirits to breaking at times. But it is only in that brokenness that we can be filled with a deeper and greater love. With miracles. With hope.
The sun began to set in layers of lavender and orange. My heart was full now and gushed forth with prayer. I whispered one of thanks.