I spent an inordinate amount of time in tears on Monday. For this, I blame a man named Hector. I’d never met Hector before 9:30 am on October 6th. But when I walked into my local tire store to have a new tire installed, he was the man who greeted me and cheerfully assisted me. He even told me to not feel bad for making an estimate on my car’s mileage that was about 50,000 miles off. Everything about Hector appeared normal until I overheard him telling another customer about his dad’s recent death. Monday night was going to be his first night volunteering at the local children’s cancer center as a way to honor his father’s life and memory. He said his father requested donations be made to St. Jude’s or the local children’s hospital instead of receiving cards and flowers and donations in honor of his father just poured in. The way Hector told it, his dad was an amazing person.
“I didn’t just lose my dad,” he said. “I lost my best friend.”
I sat there trying to see my cross-stitch project through the tears in my eyes. My heart is like a permeable membrane, allowing the joys and sorrows of others to cross its boundaries and make themselves at home within it. Hector’s grief touched me from across the room and stayed with me throughout much of the day. Nothing about his appearance suggested the immense loss he’d recently experienced or the broken heart he was trying to patch back together even though a vital piece of it was gone forever. The semblance of normalcy juxtaposed against his revelation of incredible pain shook me. I was reminded of all the times I’d put on a mask of happiness while the face behind it was screwed up in anguish and wondered how many people I encounter on a regular basis are traversing the landscape of their own private hell while appearing to walk through life as if everything were fine. In the car on my way home and a few times throughout the remainder of the day, tears spilled from my eyes for Hector’s grief and the sadness that haunts countless others.
Leaving the tire shop, I knew I had to do something. I had been witness to something I could not simply ignore. Before I could overthink it, I donated to the children’s hospital and sent Hector a note telling him what I’d done to honor his father’s life and his own hurting heart. Only after the note was safely in the mail did I allow myself to contemplate my actions. A part of me worried that I had overstepped some invisible boundary by acknowledging his pain rather than pretending I hadn’t noticed it. I sent up a quick prayer to nobody in particular requesting no more flat tires for a good long time so I could avoid going back to the shop and feeling embarrassed by my intrusion into his sadness. For the briefest of moments, I even chastised myself for caring so damn much, telling myself that there is a lot of pain in the world and I can’t go around being sad about all of it because then I’ll never be happy. And then I thought about how I would feel in Hector’s situation and let it be.
I keep telling myself and others I want my life to matter, I want to be a good influence on humanity, I want to do something good for the world. I am quickly realizing this means taking risks. Caring enough about something or someone to make an impact means risking looking foolish, embarrassing myself, and being told to mind my own business. It means risking that the tiny pinprick of light I am trying to hold up in the darkness might be ignored or snuffed out and I might lose my way for a bit. It even means putting my own emotional wellbeing at risk sometimes. But goodness, guys. If I am not willing to risk those things then I risk becoming numb, impotent, and inconsequential. Crying for the loss of a stranger’s father may seem silly and perhaps it is. But who I’d become if I stopped crying and caring for others is not someone I want to be.