An elderly man came into the Panera where I worked. I could tell immediately that he was in the early stages of a deep winter of the mind by the way his awareness seemed clouded, the way he moved through our space and looked at the counter and the coffee urns as if he was seeing something else. But he was smiling.
I asked if I could help him. He grinned even wider and said with that same kind of distance in his voice "I'm waiting for a lady." I returned the smile and told him I'd help whenever she arrived.
"Life has a lot of waiting," he told me cheerfully as he made his way closer to my register. He studied my name tag hard for a moment, reading the blue sharpie letters. "Mary. I had a sister named Mary. I always had to wait for her too."
Before I could properly respond, he had a moment of striking, heart-wrenching clarity, and his eyes welled with tears. "Yes, I had a sister named Mary. Then she was sick. It was leukemia. And they told me I had to say goodbye."
I looked him straight in the eyes. "I am so, so sorry."
"So many things happen to me that I don't understand. But I keep believing there is a purpose, for all of it." He smiled again, eyes still bright with tears. "I keep making the best of every day."
My eyes stung also as I affirmed his words, as I told him me too.
A few moments later his wife came in and guided him gently through the ordering process. Later, he came back to buy a pastry, wearing that same distracted grin. I made sure he got a discount. After my coworker had handed him his dessert, in another moment of clarity, he looked at me and said, "Thank you for being so kind."
I feel sometimes like I must seem so childish, clinging to kindness, honesty, and empathy the way I do, believing that the sacred still exists when we take our skin off and offer each other our beating—bleeding—hearts. I also know, better than anyone, that when I emphasize these things I am on some level a hypocrite, since I fail far more often than I succeed, in all my relationships.
But there are moments like these that will haunt me my whole life. They remind me when kindness feels an awful lot like willingly offering yourself up to be bruised—that maybe this is part of being fully human as we were meant to be. Somehow, in a humbling, paradoxical grace, in sharing brokenness, we are made more whole.
Mary is a fan of stories about grace—whether they show up in writing, music, or photography form. She's been listening to and telling those stories as a professional writer for over 10 years. Mary is the founder and editor of Rock on Purpose, where she talks about rock music centered around truth and redemptive justice.