I believe in kindness.
I believe that when Life is robbed of all fairness and hope, when meaning and purpose have cruelly been plucked from the web of sense and reason leaving but a bottomless hole of despair and darkness in its place, I believe that what is left – the only thing that is left — is human kindness.
I lost my daughter Penelope seven months ago to a rare and painful cancer. She was almost five when she died. After an excruciating and valiant fight that lasted almost three years, my hero gasped her last breath in our arms at 6:30 one morning when the beautiful pink and purple magnolia trees outside our windows were in bloom. She was in agony until the very end. When she died, everything died with her except my reflex to breathe.
I don’t believe there is any explanation as to why a child, any child, should ever suffer. There’s no justification, no Higher Power that could convince me of the purpose and reason for such pure injustice. The quest for the “Why” is a futile and barren journey. But the “What, then?” truly haunts me: when everything is taken away, what then is left?
Shortly after Penelope’s death and a failed suicide attempt, I committed myself to a mental institution for a month, for I also believe the only chance a broken person has of beginning the healing process is by starting from scratch, by re-learning basic functions of self-care and human interaction in a safe environment. One afternoon, when I was folded over in a chair, my hands cradling my tear-exhausted face, a woman came over and sat next to me. I could tell she was another patient from the clothes she had on. She gently enveloped her arm around my shoulders and reminded me to breathe. We sat there in silence for a while before she pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to me. On it was a poem, an extraordinary poem she told me had helped her with trying to make some sense of things after her husband had died. The poem by Naomi Shihab Nye is called “Before you know what kindness really is…” My understanding of the poem is that when everything is stripped away, when absolutely nothing makes any sense anymore, the one thing that gets you up in the morning, the one thing that gets you through the insanity of it all is the realization of human kindness. It’s seems so incredibly basic, but it made sense and stuck.
Like the contour of that sweet woman’s face at the hospital, I’ve committed the poem to memory. The words don’t in any way alleviate the pain or lessen the extraordinary loss, but they do sometimes help me make it through another moment when I think I just can’t go on. And they do also remind me that it can be the little gestures, like handing someone a piece of paper with a beautiful poem on it, that can make a difference.
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