When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.
I didn’t understand. Not really.
Me: Easter, 1987
We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.
The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.
While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.
I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.
I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.
I remember thinking,
“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”
I remember thinking,
“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”
That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.
My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.
That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.
I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.
In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.
I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.
Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.
Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.
But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.
Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.
I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.
Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.
And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.
We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.
She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.
My child, here is what I want to tell you.
Believe in the goodness of people.
Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.
Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.
You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.
But always, always, always remember this:
As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.
Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.
Every. Single. Time.
Do not wish away misfortune and pain.
Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.
And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.
Have faith, my child.
Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.
This world is good because sometimes it is bad.
Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.
God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.
It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.
But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.
But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.
Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.
But the truth is, most of us don’t.
The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.
Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.
And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.
How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?
How could God be real when I am suffering so much?
What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.
Instead, they see life as a spiral.
A constant moving away and returning.
Moving away from what matters.
Returning to what matters.
Moving away from truth.
Returning to truth.
Around and around and around.
Until we arrive at the center.
Until we return to God.
What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.
That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.
It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.
It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.
It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.
It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.
It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.
My child, be that hand of God.
Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.
As Mother Teresa has said…
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.
With all my love,