I have said many times that when a person loves another, especially spouses and children, that person has signed a contract of pain. Even the overwhelming joy of love has the sorrow of wistfulness in it. Just remember that fabulous day at the beach years ago, for example. Love has so many ups and downs, insides and outsides, warps and woofs, that one can hardly tolerate its power in us. We are powerless over love. Certainly, no one can control it; anyone who attempts to control it, loses it. For sure, anyone who attempts to control love will limit its wild beauty and potentially destroy its habitat. It is too immense to be controlled and too simple to be improved upon. Love stretches to the stars and opens like a wild bloom of a flower no one planted.
The quote goes as follows: “There are some who bring a light so great to the world that even after they are gone, the light remains.” I don’t know who said it, but I do know what it means. I used to think the quote referred only to the people whose names are known to many—like Moses or Lincoln or Mother Teresa. That being so, I think it also applies to people we never hear about in public. Those “unknown” people bless our lives by placing care in us so deeply and profoundly that we draw from it for as long as we live. One of those people in my life was Mrs. Blair.
When I was ten years old, my family moved from town to the country. It was only two miles outside the city limits, but it was 123 acres in the country. Across the road from our driveway was a Mrs. J.M. Blair’s house, surrounded by 200 year-old boxwoods that created a screen nine feet tall, impenetrably thick with green. The house was a two-story log home, and it had been covered with poplar boards years before, weathered to dry, gray planking. In a side yard three pear trees had broken limbs from being unable to hold up the weight of unpicked fruit. A rusty hand pump stood beside a concrete trough that used to water livestock. Very old, stately maple trees surrounded the house and stood tall above the boxwoods.
I met Mrs. Blair when she walked across the road where I was helping my father work on a fence. At the time, she was in her 60s and walked slowly on arthritic knees. She brought my father a glass of water in a crinkled glass that had imprints of oranges on it. I listened to them visit a while before she returned across the road through a very slight opening in the boxwoods that I had not seen. It had been a wider opening years before.
The following summer I asked Mrs. Blair if I could cut her grass for three dollars. I got the mower stuck within minutes on my first round of her yard, mired in a low, drainage spot on the edge of her place. Scared me because I thought I might lose my job before it hardly got started. I rocked the mower back and forth what seemed like an hour with her watching me. She asked me if my father knew I was cutting her grass and had his mower. I told her, “yes ma’am,” while sweating, pushing, and worrying about getting in trouble if I couldn’t get the mower unstuck and finish the job. I didn’t care about the three dollars at the moment.
I finally got the mower unstuck. I was grateful and proud to finish my first real job. I even thought to mow a path to the old, unused barn at the back of her place, just in case she might want to check on something back there. Plus, she could stumble since she had sort of a way of walking carefully because of her knees.
In the fall, grass cutting became leaf raking and bush trimming. I got the rusty old pump going just by using it. When it snowed, I carried coal to her furnace from her tool shed, and we would sit and visit in the “main” room by her furnace. She would make apple pies with sugary gold crust for me in the fall and lemonade with real lemons in the summer. She used the pitcher that went with the glass that had orange imprints on it. Even into high school after basketball practice, I would sometimes visit her and sit on her back porch on aluminum fan-chairs. She would worry some over how bad things seemed to be getting. I would say, “yes ma’am,” but really think that she got most of her information from the newspaper. She didn’t get out too far from home anymore.
I met Mrs. Blair when I was ten years old, and stayed close to her until I left home. I found out the first summer of cutting her grass that her husband died when she was thirty years of age, and that she had raised two sons on their place. I decided then that I better watch out after her, and did. I never mentioned her sorrow, but I made sure she stayed alright.
Mrs. Blair died while I was living in Texas and had married. For the longest time, I thought that I was helping her by visiting and doing chores; it was helpful, of course. But more, I didn’t know that she was helping my heart grow; I knew that I was loved. I didn’t do things for her to be loved; I did things for her because I was loved. What started out as three dollars turned into a treasure to my heart. I kept doing things long after lemonade and apple pie stopped, and she switched from coal to propane for heat. She fed a little boy’s heart to help him become a man who could love his own children better one day. The light of her life still burns in me.
One of my best friend’s son, who is eleven years old, fell into a fire pit last Friday night. He has severe burns over his whole left arm and right hand, less severe in other places. Less severe just means the burns won’t need surgery. He will live and almost certainly heal completely; he will, however, carry the evidence of the scars of life, outside and inside.
I don’t have the relief that knowing he will heal brings; the perspective in which the fact that he will likely fully recover helps me forget the pain he must go through to get there. The perspective is not a reality. The reality is a child. This eleven year old is in the adult burn unit at a major medical center. He is in agony. His suffering will continue even after his healing begins in the hands of powerful medical gifts. The medical team performed the first skin graft the morning after the accident. The child reported the pain to be like needles being stuck in him and then hornets stinging the open area over and over and over.
The group of children were having a perfect Friday night among family and friends before it turned into an agonizing story of terror. The care, prayers, and physical help that my friend’s family and son are receiving, and will continue to receive, is a great gift in the midst of the tragedy; yet the pain does not stop.
If you read these words and hate what happened, you care about my friend’s son because you can imagine the pain and don’t want it to happen to you or anyone you love. Don’t you know that everyone involved also wishes that this painful reality could just be rolled back to Friday afternoon? No Friday night fire pit, no accident, no pain, just easy, quiet, good laughter and the joyful experience of living. The fire pit was properly built, properly supervised, and the children were behaving properly. He still fell. And there is no rolling back of the time. There is no place to go away, to get away, unless love is left behind.
There is no such place as “away.”
The pain of life and love is not going to stop no matter what we do. There really is no getting away from life, though I know what people mean when they say, “I want to get away.” Doesn’t matter. My friend, his wife, his son and all concerned have to face, feel, and deal with what is happening. They must deal with life or abandon their son.
If we are going to experience the joy of life, we cannot escape the pain of life. In fact, all of our attempts to escape the pain of life really do make us forfeit the joy of living. Wherever we go, we end up finding ourselves having to live all that life has in it, not just its sweetness that we can imagine.
We really do live in the war zone of reality where hope battles despair, light battles darkness, creativity battles destruction, and courage battles death. If this were all that exists—the fight and only the fight itself—I don’t believe life would be worth it.
There is more than the fight; it is the love for which we fight. However, we do have to learn how to fight hard and with great passion, just as the healers on the burn unit fight for their patient, and my friend fights for his son.
But how do we continue to fight in a world that will overwhelm us? We do so with love, the kind of love that is willing to face all things, feel all things, reach to have help in all things, and then stay. We do so by “waiting hard” in neutral while others care for us. We do so by moving forward when we are not the ones in the midst of the agony, and then stopping to help those who are “waiting hard.” We do so by not going away to a place that does not exist and where love does not live. We don’t put our lives in reverse. Love has a neutral and a forward. No reverse.
Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres,” (I Cor. 13:7), and has to do so in a world that is tragic. Either we face it, feel it, reach out to others in it, or we clamor for a place called “away” that does not exist.
We cannot get to a place that allows us to live without agony in the midst of reality. Our only recourse, our only solace, and our only true fight is to love deeply, even though we know the cost, and to remain while we pay it. Rest assured, my friend, his wife, their son, and their other children are caught up in the battle right now. My friend and his wife will not leave their son. They will not leave each other. They will remain, and they will love.