I sat behind the table and watched them come in–some energetic and eager, some shuffling, bent as though carrying an invisible weight. Others leaned on walkers or canes or the arms of loved ones, their faces deeply lined with memories I could only try to imagine.
A noon luncheon is always on the agenda, and they usually know the rest of the program in advance, too. But not today. It was billed as a “mystery.” The director had suggested I arrive around 11:00 to sell books. Always the obedient(ish) child, I showed up at 11:10(ish), arranged eight or nine books and some business cards on the designated table, and waited.
Those who recognized me came right over. Others paused at the table out of curiosity. All of them wondered what I was doing there.
“I’m your mystery speaker,” I said.
Eyes lit up. Most said, “Ah!” or something like, “Well now, won’t that be lovely!” No one seemed disappointed (that was nice) and a few even bought books. But most of the hour I was free to observe, and as I did, my heart began to fill with a familiar ache.
Then I saw them. A frail husband supported by his slightly less frail wife, her arm entwined around his, their hands clasped. They inched their way through the Civic Center lobby toward the banquet hall–his expression blank, hers focused yet calm. When they passed a few feet away from me, something happened in my heart–too brief to fully capture–like a subliminal image that flashes on the screen of your mind and then vanishes before you can consciously trace its shape. They were young, newlywed, bearing and raising children, laughing, weeping, burying their dead, “collecting the moments one by one” and then condensing them all to arrive at a time when their firm clasp on each other was as fragile as time and unshakable as eternity.
In that instant I knew I wouldn’t be sticking close to my notes.
The banquet hall filled. I guess there were at least a couple hundred (I’ve never been good at estimating numbers) seated at long tables. I was the last item on the agenda, and I’d been asked to speak for fifteen minutes. To give a “book review.” It wasn’t hard to shift the focus. I looked across the sea of faces. Some of them are mentioned by name in Parting the Waters. Many of them had prayed for us, and some still do. Daily. More than anything, I wanted them to know that they matter. That even when the parameter’s of one’s life are confined, no selfless act is too small. And that God gathers all our feeble offerings and combines them to create unspeakable beauty. Jacob’s life declares this truth. And they–the soul of this community–were a vital part of his remaking. This is essentially what I said, and I could see in their faces that they heard.
Yesterday I spoke at a luncheon for area senior citizens. I sold twenty-one books and received two new speaking requests. A DJ from the local radio station interviewed me and encouraged me to keep her abreast of my projects and events. For a writer/speaker, that’s a very good day. But the images haunting my heart have nothing to do with professional success. Life is a journey. If mine turns out to be a long one, I want the lines on my face to tell a beautiful story. I want to shuffle out clinging to the arm of one who has shared my journey intimately and loves me anyway. And I want to remember that no prayer rising from a heart of compassion, no hour spent by someone’s bedside–indeed, no act of love is small.
Yesterday I was supposed to give a book review, but the director didn’t seem to mind that I used the time to say, “Thank you.”