Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Pearl of great price" {a vignette from our sojourning this summer}

{Thank you for grace for this long silence... we are 5 days into our third trip of over two weeks this summer.  We've been away more than we've been home, and life has been made of lots of waiting and trying to find joy in the moments, despite feeling like wanderers... }

A vignette from our first couple days in our temporary apartment, God planting us each place we go, even if it's only for a short time...

She tells me her name is Pearl.  “Pearl, like the stone, you know?”  She’s wearing a sky-blue spandex T-shirt and denim capris, her dark hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head with a black velvet scrunchie.  I notice her pretty earrings, gold with blue stones, her matching pendant.  She doesn’t look more than 25 or 26.  She introduces me to her kids: the baby she’s swinging, a little boy 14 months old; his sister, 4 years old; and the older brother, 10 years old.  At this point I stop her, kid her.  

“Wait - you have a ten-year-old?  That can’t be possible!”  She breaks into a broad grin.  

“How old are you, anyway?”  I tease.  I offer my own age.  “I’m 31… you must be - “ 

“Thir-ty fife - no, thir-ty ayte, I’m thir-ty ayte!” she carefully corrects her English.  We’re speaking a mixture of English and Russian - she has about as much English as I have Russian.  We’re managing.  

“Thirty-eight!”  I’m incredulous.  She really looks just out of college.  I tell her I should call her my “Tye-tye” (Russian for “aunty”), and we both laugh.  I look at her beautiful children.  We talk about age gaps.  I introduce my kids, Ruby on the ground eating dirt, the boys chasing each other around the jungle gym.  She chuckles when I tell her how tired I am, pantomime pulling out my hair.  We share quiet, maternal pride.  

It’s not until later that she tells me.  This is, after all, only our first conversation.  But in this part of the world, the hard stories often come sooner rather than later.  Because everyone has them.  They are a bridge into intimacy, shared experiences spanning the gulf between strangers.  I often feel a mixture of guilt and relief that I don’t have any tragedies of my own to tell.  

We are talking about our sons, how my eldest is serious and studious, my second-born rowdy and active.  She tells me then.  “I had another son.  My first-born.  He was serious, like yours.”

I want to make sure I’ve heard her correctly.  “Another son?”

“Yes.  He died.  A… cat-a-strof.”  The Russian word is the same as the English one.  Catastrophe.  I want to know, and I don’t want to know.  I’m already bonded with this woman.  “What happened?”  I lean closer, instinctively trying to comfort her with some kind of nearness.  

“I was driving, we were going to the lake.”

“You were by yourself?”

“Yes.”  The details are few, the language barrier frustrates now more than intrigues. “My two sons were - “ she waves behind her.  I fill in, “Behind you.”  

“Yes, behind me.  My son, the oldest, he was crying about something, I don’t know what.”  At this point, her ten-year-old comes up on rollerblades, and she stops.  Asks me if my children can have ice cream, gets out money, sends her son off with a stream of instructions.  I, too, get out money and offer to pay, but she waves me off with a mock-serious frown - “No. No!”  Unthinkable, to let guests in your country pay for their own ice cream.  I give in, smile at her son as he rolls away.

When he’s out of earshot, I ask, “So, what happened?”

“I was asking my son, ‘Why? Why? Why are you crying?’  I was - “ she motions with her hand again, whacks at an invisible child “ - like this, behind the seat, trying to get him to be quiet.”  Her youngest is tugging at her T-shirt, so she  blandly whips out her breast and he begins to nurse.  She cradles him across her body, continues her story.  

“And then, the car - “ she makes a twirling motion in the air with her hand. 

“You - you rolled the car.” 

“Yes, yes, I rolled the car.  Two times.” She tells me this with an almost immovable face. Only her eyes betray her pain.

“You rolled the car twice - “ my hands are over my mouth, I can’t breathe.  I shake my head wordlessly at her.  Finally I ask, “Was he wearing his seatbelt?”

“I told him to put it on,” she says, making a helpless motion with her hand.  “I told him, but… he didn’t listen.  I was stupid.”  The English word sounds abrupt and harsh, bursting from her mouth.  Chastising herself in a foreign language.  She says it again, and again.  “I was stupid.  Stupid.  I should have stopped the car.  I should have wiped his face, cleaned his face, comforted him - “  By now, my eyes are watering.  I’m looking wordlessly at her, both hands over my mouth.  I still can’t breathe.  The noise of the playground swirls around us.  

“I should have said, ‘Quiet, quiet, my son, what’s wrong?’”  I think, if it were me telling this story, I’d be crying so hard I couldn’t get the words out.  

Finally I ask, “What happened?”

“He was sitting beside the window, he was thrown out of the car…”  Her son returns with the ice creams, hands them out.  I get out wet wipes, call the boys over, scrub the palms of Will and Ben’s hands, open the ice cream wrappers.  I do this automatically, numbly.  My mind is with Pearl, in the car, on that horrible day.  

“How long ago?  When did it happen?”

“Five years ago.  And five years have - “ she makes a stroking motion over her heart. 

I fill in. “...done a lot to heal your pain.”

“Yes.  I have two more children, a daughter, and now another son.”  She pats the baby at her breast, looks fondly at her four-year-old, pigtails bouncing as she bounds up the slide with her ice cream.  

“But…” I stop, feeble.  I want to say, But there is no one in the world like your son.  No matter how many more children you have, you can never replace him.

“He would be thirteen,” she says this softly.  Almost apologetically.  As if she’s not supposed to allow herself to imagine him as though he were still living.  

I try to say my thought, try to express my sorrow for her loss.  She nods, only partially understanding my broken sentences.  Our eyes meet.  Impulsively, I lean in.  I reach an awkward arm around her shoulders, around the nursing baby.  I plant a quick, clumsy kiss on her broad, brown cheek.  Her skin feels moist.  My heart leaps towards hers.  I pull back, and our eyes meet again.  There seems nothing more to be said.  

We enjoy our children enjoying their ice cream.  Ruby screams for licks from Will’s stick, mouths little bits of chocolate.  She tilts her head up, gives a cheeky grin, displaying all six of her tiny teeth.  I make a joke, try to crack the sadness with mother-empathy: “With my first, I didn’t give him any sugar for two year.  With my second, I think he was maybe a year old before he had sugar.  With the third…” I trail off, and motion to Ruby sucking on the ice cream.  We both crack up laughing, she knowing exactly how the standards go out the window.  

Later, when it’s time to go, I tell her: “I prayed and asked God for a friend, for these two weeks we will be staying here...” 

“Really?” She seems surprised one would pray about that.  “Well, I’m new too,” she admits.  “We just moved in a week ago.”

“Only one week!  But you seem so natural, so at home!”  Suddenly all the pieces click: her desire to strike up a conversation with a stranger, wanting to practice her English, buying my kids ice cream, impulsively telling me her story… she needs a friend as much as I do.

She’s a sojourner too.  Even though this is her home.  

Before, she had described their house in the country, how they want to find tenants for it, and I thought it was just another property they owned.  But no, that was the home they just left behind, so their children can go to a good school in the city.  And here she is, sharing her pain, in a foreign language with a foreigner on the playground… I like this woman.  I like that she shared herself with me, risked something on a friendship that can only last two weeks at most.  It could be just callousness, that she’s numbed to her own pain.  Maybe she tells everybody her story.

I don’t think so.  

I tell her what I think.  “I think God arranged this, our meeting.”  

Light breaks over her face.  “Yes!  I think so too.”

1 comment:

  1. Oh Carolyn! Thank you for being there for her! Thank you for being God's heart that day. What a sad story. The guilt I'd struggle with... even if I did know Jesus. I hope she finds peace everlasting!