If you’ve never met me then you probably don’t know that I am the sort of person who tears up on a dime. Hallmark commercials, old hymns, the surreptitious squeeze of memory catching me off guard. People likely think that I’m depressed or unhinged, but the truth is I just feel things deeply and it shows. Most times I’d prefer it didn’t but we don’t get to choose how we’re “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I often weep when I read the prayers at church because really, how can you not, as you stand between heaven and earth and call out to the Living God to bless, to forgive, to heal, to save. If my tears make people feel those prayers more fully then I must believe that that’s a blessing, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
But weeping in church is one thing: weeping out in the world is quite another.
So there I was at Vons, picking up a few things before Thanksgiving. I was moving through the check-out line when I saw her one lane over, Sandy, a woman I had known from my many years as a little league mom. She was the aunt of one of my son’s teammates, a boy with the sweetest, most guileless face I’d ever seen. Jake was a good kid with the world stacked against him. His father came to games but always watched from the fence, as if he didn’t see himself as quite fit for the bleachers. There was no mother—at least not one that was seen or heard from. But every single game Aunt Sandy was there, and the boy’s grandpa, too. I remember thinking that maybe that would be enough to save him. That even one family member who loved you and showed up could do it; Jake had three.
The boys didn’t cross paths much at Venice High. My son, Graham, had been put on the Varsity. Jake played JV for a bit and then fell away from the game he had loved. I saw his dad one day near the high school and said hi. When he smiled shyly I could see that all his teeth were missing. Teeth, or the absence thereof, are a fairly clear dividing line in a city like L.A. Teeth, in my world, are not something you don’t replace when they all fall out. Naively, I imagined that he had just been in a bad bar fight, that he’d have new teeth the next time I saw him. He didn’t. Which only pushed him farther to the margins, made him less fit for any sort of community other than toothless folks and others who struggle on the streets of our hard urban life. But not Sandy. Sandy had the sort of sunny complexion and frosted, blonde ringlets that speak of California summers and indefatigable optimism.
“Sandy?” I called out across the check-out lines. She looked over, needing a prompt. “It’s Heather, from baseball.” By the time I could reach out my arms for a hug and tell her how glad I was to see her, my eyes had begun to well up. I tried to hold them wider so she wouldn’t notice, or maybe think I just had a little cold. She asked about my kids and I touched lightly on the good things that were happening for them. I touched just as lightly on what I had known was a long stretch of troubled years for her nephew since the last time we’d had weekly contact. “I know he struggled a bit after his friend died,” I said gently. His best friend had been shot out in front of a party one night for no good reason—at least not one that would ever make sense. Sandy kept the progress report honest, but upbeat.
No sooner had I wished her a Happy Thanksgiving and turned my cart away than the tears began to have their due. I wondered how I could ever explain why a casual reunion with a woman I’d known only in passing a decade before meant anything to me at all. But there it was, in that instant of connection, in our bond in the human family: every single emotion I’d ever felt about her or the grandpa or the dad or Jake. All there, on demand, and pressing down on my heart with the reminder that goodness and suffering are forever wed in this lifetime. I wept for the boy who never had it easy, and for all the ways the world had let him down. I wept for the dad’s broken life, and the grandpa’s efforts to somehow hold them all together. But mostly, I wept for the beautiful gift that an aunt gave to her nephew, of showing up, of believing in him, of taking him in, of forgiving him, and of saying with all the love a person could muster, “he’s had a few rough years, but I think he’s finally on a good path now.” Then, just as she had done so many times before, she smiled without a hint of weariness.
Sandy will never know how much I admire her, or how much her steadfastness inspires me. Or how grateful I am for that chance encounter, which has opened my heart for the spirit of Thanksgiving.
This is the blessing of sacred tears.