I believe that the only thing that matters in life is people.
I am blessed with the good fortune of quality people surrounding me as my “circle of influence” in life. They keep me grounded to my authentic self, and allow me to do the same for them. This exchange is the most powerful and meaningful thing that can happen on any given day. Sometimes it is a minor passing of words in just a few short moments, and sometimes the exchange is prominent and stretched out over time. Though this give-and-take is more common in my life among the people that I keep close, I have experienced it with perfect strangers in far away places over the course of my journey. This is the magnificent thing about true human connection: it knows no boundaries and can resonate far deeper than what appears on the surface. One memory that comes to mind to reflect this is centered around Elizabeth…..
Elizabeth was the name of the woman that opened her home to me as a host while I was a teacher of English in Poland during the summer of 1993. I had spent the first half of my teaching with another host family, complete with a father, mother, and their two lovely daughters. When it was time to move to Elizabeth’s house I found she lived all alone in a rather large flat. She was one of the only dentists in this small and time-forgotten town and, it seemed to me, did quite well for herself in that capacity. Elizabeth did not speak a word of English, and I not a word of Polish. So there we were together in this spacious flat that echoed every movement, smiling at each other kindly, but not able to speak a word to one another. How incredible that she would open her house up to me like that, considering we would surely remain strangers the entire time as a result of the communication barrier between us. But I underestimated our capabilities.
My first morning I walked into the kitchen to see Elizabeth sitting at the breakfast table, and a beautiful bouquet of white lilies on the kitchen counter. I pointed to them and smiled to indicate I was appreciative of their beauty. I pointed to her as if to inquire “for you?” Elizabeth looked at me, smiled with sad eyes, and somehow communicated to me that they were for her husband’s grave, and today the anniversary of his death. How she did this I cannot recall, but I do know I understood that much. And then, Elizabeth started to cry. So I went over and sat by her at the table in the morning sun, put my arm around her shoulder, and I listened. Elizabeth, in her native language, went on and on about her husband, her loss of him, her grief, and whatever other details she needed to pour out at the moment. For certain we were in that exchange for at least 20 minutes; Elizabeth with her grief and me with an ear to hear but, more importantly a heart to listen. Though to this day I don’t have a clue of what she actually said, I know where it counts that my understanding was correct.
I remember when it came to the end of my stay Elizabeth gave me three pairs of earrings to choose from as a parting gift. I was reluctant, but did not want to insult her generosity, so picked a lovely pair that I still have to this day. I think of her every time I see them in my jewelry box, though I cannot tell you the last time I wore them. I know that was not the only thing that Elizabeth gave to take with me as I left her country. I’m honored to be the one to carry the remembrance of her husband, her loss of love, and the grief of her heart in mine…along with the lesson that this is the only stuff in life that truly matters.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.