The Old Woman Who Needed to Be Heard

Mere Breath Ben and I were letting the kids run around to stretch their legs somewhere in Montana. We were on our way back from seeing the eclipse and it was a full days drive. I was sitting on a bench eating cheese and crackers in the hot summer sun. I watched as an elderly lady shuffled into the park. Her back was hunched as she relied heavily on a walking cane. She made her way to me and sat down. “My son died on Friday,” she said matter of factly, “I had six boys and now four of them are dead.” Her eyes followed the children as they acted out Star Wars on the jungle gym. I said that I was so sorry. She wasn’t looking for sympathy, though. She didn’t offer any details so I didn’t ask. I looked at my two sons and tried to imagine what it must have been like to raise six of them. Clearly, this was an extraordinary woman. Her face was pale, worn with age and marked with sun-spots. I wondered how many summer days she sat in the sun, perhaps reading as I am fond of doing. I hope I have sun speckled skin to remind me of those times when I am old. Youthful appearances are overrated. Her hands rested on her knees. They were pale and fragile, but she wasn’t trembling.  “I just needed to get out of my apartment,” she continued. “It’s dark in there.” She was wearing her house slippers and several layers of warm clothing but she still seemed cold. I figured she must live nearby. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. I can’t imagine how painful that must be. Her eyes never turned to me as I fumbled for words of encouragement or even just a subject she might enjoy. I’m not very good at talking in real life. Ben drew near to check on me, our dog on a leash. She asked what kind of dog he was and leaned down to pet him. She had two dogs at home, terriers. She thought small dogs made the best pets. We fell silent again. “God is my hope. He is who will get me through.” Her statement was abrupt. I thought she must have been thinking of her sons again. It caught me off guard to hear words I repeat to myself so often come from another person’s lips. Words that I cling to in desperation, in frustration, in sleepless nights and hard days. She spoke the words with calm familiarity. It was something she knew in her heart to be absolutely and undeniably true.  “I had a heart attack three times in one day,” she said.  She told me the story of how a friend found her after she had the first one. Her friend wanted to take her to the hospital, but she wasn’t interested. She wasn’t afraid. A couple hours later she had another one. Her friend insisted they go the emergency room, where they waited for 40 minutes before getting ushered into the back for care. She chuckled lightly. “Then we had to wait an hour before the doctor finally saw me!” She wasn’t complaining, she was marvelling more than anything else. “I had another heart attack while the doctor was examining me. Then they checked me in for a week.” It was expensive, she concluded. “I got porcelain teeth when I was 21 years old. The bottom, ” she paused and touched her teeth “no, the top were all knocked out so I didn’t have teeth there for a long time. Then a dentist made me these, ” she smiled to reveal a line of pretty white teeth, “and he only charged me ten dollars.” We had to get back on the road. We gathered the kids. I said goodbye. She got up from the bench and moved towards another woman who was sitting at a picnic table.

I’ve been thinking about her. She must have been sad and lonely…or bored. She had some things that she needed to say. She didn’t require anything of me, she just needed to be heard. I know what that feels like. We all do. With today’s technological advances, sometimes it feels like everyone is talking all at once. The live tweeting, live podcasts, live news, live status updates.  Some of us shout above it all, demanding an audience. Others are quiet, searching the faces in the crowd for someone who might be willing to listen.  We all desire affirmation that we are worthy of an ear to hear us. Is anyone really listening?

We need to practice. Our hearing muscles have atrophied. We need to train ourselves to be receivers. This is how we love one another, by shutting up.  We need to practice slowing down, waiting to let words fall into our ears and be absorbed into our hearts. We need to be gracious and willing to be silent. We need to put down our cellphones, turn off the music and make eye contact, to let someone, anyone, know that they are being heard. We are all made in the image of God, and for that alone worthy of a respectful, listening ear.

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