As promised, this week starts a new guest post series under the theme of “Listen, Learn and Listen Some More.” You’ll still hear from me, of course, but every Tuesday you’ll be invited into story from some writers who have something to teach the rest of us. As such, I’m so excited for you to get to know Andrew Taylor-Troutman today; his short story, “You Sit on My Heart” is sure to make you take pause about the things that really matter. Proceeds from today’s article will go toward RAICES.
This Christmas Eve several minivans were parked in the drop-off zone by the UNC hospital’s main entrance, their hazard lights blinking. Walking closer, I discovered that hundreds of gift bags were being unloaded onto carts. Each volunteer wore a red Santa hat with a bell attached to the end. One caught my eye, gave me a ringing smile.
I, too, was there to deliver a gift.
A friend always ends her e-mails, “Hugs.” When she’s asked about her belief in God, she says she’s “waiting to be convinced.” When I found out she was going to undergo chemotherapy treatments in January, I told her I’d be sending her “monster hugs.” That was my way of saying I’d pray for her. My four-year-old son happened to overhear me. He drew an orange monster with a toothy smile and beastly arms spread wide. My friend gave me permission to make photocopies to share with others.
On Christmas Eve, one of my son’s beloved preschool teachers was in the ICU. She was unable to talk due to the tubes down her throat. But when I delivered a Monster Hug picture, I could read her lips: Thank you. Tell him I love him.
On my way out of the hospital, I stopped at the chapel. It is a simple, circular room with wooden chairs and meditation pillows. Pamphlets on grief are neatly stacked in a bookshelf by the door. There is a three-ringed binder with blank pages to write prayer requests. On this particular Christmas Eve visit, there was a collection of the gift bags I’d seen upon entering the hospital stacked in a corner. And there in the middle of the carpet was a dead cockroach, flipped on its back.
There are cockroaches everywhere, including chapels. There is sickness and worry all the time, including Christmas. Over the years I’ve known many people who have died during the holidays. A friend recently shared a song by the country music artist, Kacey Musgraves: And they always say, have a happy holiday / and every year, I sincerely try / oh, but Christmas always makes me cry.
There was a tissue box next to the pamphlets. After wrapping the cockroach’s remains in a paper shroud, I sat down on a meditation pillow. I cheated at the Lotus position, tucking my feet under my knees instead of over them. I closed my eyes, briefly, to center myself. Then I looked across the room at the tree that had been painted on the wall. I told myself to concentrate on the roots. I felt my weight pushing into the floor and became as still as a tree. I counted my breaths.
But I only counted to seven before my monkey mind began swinging wildly from thought to thought.
Scotch-taped to the tree’s brown branches were colorful leaves bearing the names of patients. From the look of the handwriting, some were written by children. I began to wonder if those kids were excited for Christmas morning like my children? And did some of them draw pictures that their proud fathers could share with others? How many of them were undergoing treatment for cancer or in the ICU?
How many of those children were now dead?
I looked down beside me at the dead cockroach wrapped in tissue. Oh, but Christmas always makes me cry.
At the first church I served, there was a widow who cried silently throughout the Christmas Eve service. I approached her afterwards and apologized for whatever I’d done or said that upset her. “It had nothin’ to do with you,” she reassured me, “but I appreciate you for noticing.” Maybe that is a prayer.
I prayed for my son’s preschool teacher and for others on my mind—for a premature baby in the NICU, for a toddler with a tumor, and for my friends and family. I am in the habit of signing my e-mails, “In hope.” I prayed and hoped for that Kacy Masgraves friend. Her mother also has cancer. Earlier in the week I’d mailed her a copy of my son’s Monster Hug and her mom had taped it to her wall among the pictures her young grandchildren had drawn. That seemed like a prayer. Also, another friend had taught me an expression of care and support in Farsi that friends say to one another in Iran: Shoma bedelam misheeneed. Literally, “you sit on my heart.” He explained that the heart is thought to be the seat of reason in Middle Eastern culture, so the meaning of the phrase is similar to the English expression “you are on my mind.” I do believe that much of prayer involves calling people to mind, but the expression in Farsi brings tears to my eyes.
Eventually I rose from my seat on the meditation pillow and deposited that dead cockroach in a trashcan. On my way to the main exit, I noticed that the minivans had already left, their gifts having been delivered.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the author of Gently Between the Words, a collection of essays and poems.