Luckily I had been warned. I knew I wouldn’t meet the same man I had once known and this information gave me consolation. He wouldn’t be the energetic, opinionated, articulate man who had welcomed me, along with his wife, into their home so many years ago. He had been changed by the enemy cells that had taken over too quickly and by the resulting therapy to fight them. Our meeting after several years of this fighting would be different.
Pushed in a wheelchair because he can no longer walk on his own, he sits, cap on his head I assume to cover the scars, with a somewhat bewildered look on his face: bewildered at how it has come to this; bewildered at how people greet him with varying looks of sympathy, pity and alarm stemming from their own uncertainty.
I am genuinely so happy to see him, and although I too feel uncertain about how I should greet him, I do what comes naturally. For him unexpected I lean over and envelope him in a big, awkward wheelchair hug. Then comes the easy stuff: asking if he needs more coffee, introducing myself to his son whom I had yet to meet, asking about the family weekend. And then because I do want to know, but without thinking where it may lead, I ask,
“And how are you doing?”
“Na ja,” he replies. (In German class we learned to reply so la la, pronounced exactly the way it looks, when we were neither doing well nor badly. Of course in class this is how we always responded when asked, Wie geht es dir? because it’s just fun to say. Unfortunately Germans do not use it on a regular basis. Na ja, pronounced “nah yah”, is used more frequently and in various circumstances and means something like “okay” with resignation. Often and in this case with a sigh thrown in.)
It is a simple, yet completely appropriate response because really, what else should he say? He no longer has exciting vacation tales to tell and going into details about the latest therapy possibilities and struggles in his day-to-day over a quick cup of coffee and in the midst of a curious crowd is impossible. So we leave it at that.
I smile, wishing I could telepathically share all of my thoughts, feelings and wishes for him, but am at a loss as to what I should actually say.
“You look good,” he says.
“Thank you,” I grin. “I’m doing well too.”
With that our conversation comes abruptly to an end, as another old acquaintance greets him. Before he is swept away to lunch, I kiss him on the cheek and tell him again how good it is to see him.
Our encounter stays with me and forces me to repeatedly ask the same questions: was it appropriate for me to say I am doing well, even though I know he is not? Can I be sensitive to the situation of others, even while I am enjoying life and am thankful for where I am in my life right now?
In our little town and among church family, we hear predominantly bad news. Spouses of fellow choir members have been diagnosed with cancer and fight for their lives. A fifty-year-old man with school-aged children recently lost his battle to the tumors that consumed him. One older church member waits for a hip replacement while recovering from the last and is, in the meantime, lonely.
These are the individuals with whom I struggle along. I pray for them; I worry with them: nonetheless, I am happy. It feels good and freeing to be writing. My children are healthy and carefree. We have fun and exciting summer plans to look forward to. In this moment we are in a good place, and I am so thankful for that. But when I interact with these friends who are not well, is it fair to them to reveal the truth of my happiness? Will I not be a carnival-type mirror that only serves as a painful reminder of their reality?
Knowing full-well everything can change in an instant, I want to savor completely this moment of goodness we are experiencing. But my happiness silences me when face-to-face with a hurting person. Although running away would be easier, my faith and desire to care for others does not allow it, and so I awkwardly stand there, wondering what words, if any, are the right ones. It seems I have a knack for allowing the wrong ones to cross my tongue, so even with the best intentions, I offend. Caught in a vicious cycle, I wonder again if I should remain still, but what if, by Divine Intervention, I manage to find the right words? What if I can be a balsam to a soul? I then have no right to refrain.
It is a balancing act, but perhaps one I can only truly grasp when I have endured such difficulties. Questions still plague me, but for now I will continue to revel in the joy of our contentment. Even in my uncertainty and in each unique circumstance, I will search for the best way to communicate my care (and possibly work on my telepathy).