We broke the school dress code with our hip-hugging, skimpy cut-off shorts and bra-less halter tops. And certainly we broke the smoking code, which read, “No Smoking on the Clairemont High School Campus”. I sat on the closed toilet seat and she, with one hand propping the stall door open, the other holding a cigarette to her mouth, eyed me closely.
“Africa! Can you guys believe it? She just moved here from Africa!” Heads turned briefly in the smoke-filled bathroom, then just as quickly back to the more interesting news of who was dating who and where the next keg party was.
Her frizzy auburn hair framed a freckled face with glasses, and I wasn’t sure, but I thought one eye was a little, off. Mostly I was focused on the intensity in which she absorbed me, the details she drew from me, and the observations she made about me – “You’re so tan! You’re so pretty!”
I’d hoped to slide under the radar the first few weeks and get my footings before actually talking to anyone, but here I was on my second day, cornered in the bathroom stall. Her personality filled and spilled out of the small space, her vibrant curiosity lighting up her eyes, her grin - she never smiled - only grinned, incredulous, accepting, and welcoming. I’ve never asked her what she saw, but whatever it was, I was instantly brought under the nurturing wing of her seventeen-year-old heart.
I wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last stray to be plucked from a lonely perch in life and swept into a world where ordinary things were more colorful, more fun, and full of good times. But I’m one of the few early ones whose life was completely changed by her – not too long afterwards she introduced me to her older brother, and not too long after that we married.
Now she fights a disease that could take her life. Yesterday, while she was under the knife and surgeons removed cancerous lymph nodes I did my daily tasks in a country so alien it usually demands my constant attention, but I saw little of it. Instead I envisioned her husband and son, brother and sister-in-law, waiting anxiously for news of what the doctors had found. I thought of how they must have received it, and how they chose to tell her. In my mind I saw her awake to a body in pain and with defenses down, too vulnerable to hear that her fight had just begun.
Last year Guy was moments away from death when he crashed his quad. Two years before that, I nearly died as well, when I opened my arm on a barbed wire fence, miles from any help. From those experiences we both changed in profound and lasting ways. We emerged, not perfect or unbroken, but with the ability to take more joy from life. To distant observers, our lives were the same. To us, and to those people close by us, it was obvious that discontent had turned to serenity, bitterness to appreciation, from dwelling on what we did not have to celebrating what life brings to us.
And I learned something. I cannot tell the future. What I try to predict rarely comes true. What does come true is so unexpected I don’t even have the imagination to conjure it up. And when it comes it’s almost always something to be happy for and to celebrate over.
What my sister-in-law, Gail Rose, has received here is not despairing news but a work order. And as part of her love team, I’ve my marching orders too. I’m to listen carefully to her needs, whether those are voiced by her, or one of her next-in-command, and respond immediately and with all my abilities. And I’m to stay out of the role of future-telling and stay in the moment where I’m much more useful.
I’m not the pro she is at extending nurturing wings, but I’m getting ready and flapping hard in preparation of extending mine.