Sympathetic Joy

Abby - Portland, Oregon
Entered on July 16, 2008

This I Believe

I believe in the power of sympathetic joy. My grandmother was a woman who was an expert at it, who poured herself into other people’s lives and formed herself around their experiences like so much warmed wax. She attached to their highs mostly, from the largess of grandchildren born or houses bought, to the smallest of things, like the summer peaches my mother might find at the local farmer’s market. When she heard I’d been accepted into graduate school for writing, she holed herself up for three days reading books by the famous writer who headed the program, and those of his even more famous brother. Once she emerged, she felt she knew the brothers, and went so far as to refer to them with nicknames and suggest she might come down to Southern California (once I was settled of course) and perhaps sit in on a workshop or two. She was diagnosed with lung cancer the fall I went off to graduate school, and died a few months into my first quarter there. It’s been nearly seven years, but lately I miss her more than I ever have. I’ve lost touch with this gift she had, and long to talk to her, to have her tell me the details of a neighbor’s kitchen remodel as though it were her own or hear her unfettered enthusiasm about the book I’ve written that can’t seem to find a publisher.

Recently, I reconnected to the beauty of this ability through the daughter of a family friend. Monika has Down’s Syndrome, and at 33, spends most of her days in a self-created world of superheroes and magic, a universe that runs on the power of wishes. This doesn’t mean, however, that she’s not paying attention. In particular, she tracks other people’s birthdays with laser-like precision, and spends most of the money she makes working for the county as an office assistant on cards and presents for the people she loves. My mother turned 62 a few weeks ago, and Monika and her mother, Carol, came to visit mainly because Monika wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I took my parents and Carol and Monika to brunch that weekend, amidst circumstances that had me feeling more than a little sorry for myself — relationship challenges, my stalled writing career, having to wait tables to make ends meet. I wasn’t in the mood to sit and chat or act cheerful, but then I saw Monika and heard her laugh. It’s a low, slow laugh, not unlike Eddie Murphy’s. It’s uncensored, loud and completely unselfconscious. There is no way around smiling when you hear the sound, and she did it all through breakfast, simply because she was happy to be sitting there with us, able to celebrate my mother’s birthday with her. As we waited for the check, waiters set down meals at the table full of girls next to us, plates piled high with pancakes smothered in syrup and butter. Monica turned towards them and started to laugh. We all did, knowing exactly what the inspiration was. I could feel it then, what Monica was experiencing and I thought of my grandmother, knowing she would have laughed too, only she would have asked the girls for a bite of what they were having. I forgot myself entirely for that long joyous moment, wrapped in the comfort and divine sweetness of a place where anything is possible.