I can’t tell you what a Great Big Ol’ Deal it is to have Enuma Okoro here today. She is a fellow Patheos blogger, a lovely thinker, and has one of those smiles that makes you want to forget whatever you were just complaining about. (After you finish this post, I hope you’ll read her books.) I’m thankful she’s willing to spend some time with us.
Breakfast at Gretchen’s
We lived on the same apartment floor in Paris. For weeks we passed one another with casual greetings in the elevator or in the downstairs lobby. She was old enough to be my grandmother. We both spoke English and not the best of French. I assumed that was all we had in common. Until the week I lost my fridge.
She stopped me almost hesitantly one morning in the lobby.
“Oh hi Gretchen, how are you?”
“I’m fine. I’ve been meaning to talk to you…”
Her pause made me anticipate something negative. I quickly wondered if I had forgotten some recent faux pas. Did I leave my trash out by my apartment door to long?
“Sure, about what?” I try to sound unassuming and innocent.
“Well, your fridge…what do you do for meals?”
“Yeah. It’s just for a week or so. I’m mostly having to eat out.”
“Well, I was wondering, would you want to come over for breakfast in the mornings?”
I am instantly touched by her kindness. “Oh Gretchen, that is sooo sweet of you. Really you don’t have to do that.”
“I know, but I can’t stand the thought of you having to go out for meals everyday. Especially first thing in the morning!”
“Oh, thank you so much. I may take you up on that.”
“Well, it would be our pleasure. Anytime from 8am-10am. Just ring our doorbell. Nothing fancy. Probably just croissants or cereal or yogurt. I don’t know.”
We sit across from one another at her beautiful wooden dining table. Early summer rain slips down the slanted windowpanes in her delicately furnished apartment. Her husband has left for work. She offers a quick morning prayer and we both begin to eat our bowls of muesli.
That first morning I learn she and her husband John are from Nevada. I learn they have been married for 45 years. I learn they have no children.
The second morning, I learn about her love of needlepoint.
The third morning, I ask the question I’ve been curious about since day one.
“So did you and John just decide you didn’t want children?”
I catch a flicker of change across her face, something I cannot fully name.
“We wanted them.” A split second pause. “We had two miscarriages and then we buried Timothy and Silas.” A voice quiver.
The small room has grown large and full of old sorrow and fresh memory.
“Oh Gretchen. I. Am. So. Sorry.”
Tears well. Eyes shift focus. A few seconds and she regains composure.
“It’s okay.” She says it practiced and quiet.
“You lost four children.” I say it aloud. I try it grasp it. I wilt under the weight of quadrupled grief.
“Yes. I guess we did.” Timothy died twelve hours after he was born. Silas lived for 3 days.”
“I didn’t get to hold Timothy. They took him right away to ICU.”
Tears well. Freely. Things shift into focus.
“John asked me what he should do, and I said, ‘Go. Go with him. Stay with him.’ And he did, until Timothy died.”
“Were you angry?” I ask the obvious.
“With God? Oh yeah.” She says. “I was angry. I cried and yelled and I kept saying, ‘You made promises. Why would you do this? Why would you do this?’”
I listen. My heart grows large and full with fresh sorrow and old recognition.
She continues, “You know, we all have unmet desires we have to learn to live with.”
“I know,” I say.
“But I couldn’t stay angry forever. I didn’t know how to live my life without God.”
I listen. I nod. Tears well up in my own eyes. I know.
“I said to God, ‘This is so painful. So hard. But I don’t know how to live without you. I don’t want to live without you.’”
I hear the sigh rise from somewhere deep within me. Maybe tomorrow I will tell her my own story.
We children of God, who imagine we are strangers to one another. We, with our deep and often untamable sorrows and hungers that take root somewhere along the cracked path of our individual lives. Don’t we all face the challenge of how to graft the steady root into the expanding and flowering labyrinth of time?
I sit across our half eaten bowls of muesli. I marvel at the strength of a woman, this woman, who braved the audacity of hope four times and counted her losses just as many. I marvel at God, whose love for us is so stubbornly resilient, whose intimacy with us is so overwhelming that in response our own longing for God can chaff through our deepest sorrows, until we find numbing solace in the very heart of the one we feared betrayed us.
“We buried Silas next to Timothy. And on his tombstone I just wrote, ‘Hi Timothy, we’re together now.’”
Enuma writes from Durham, NC until she can relocate to Paris full-time! Her spiritual memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books, 2010) was a winning finalist in the 2010 USA Best Books Award and received the 2011 National Indie Excellent Book Awards Winning Finalist in “Spirituality and African-American Non-Fiction.” She is also co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, (Zondervan, 2010). Enuma’s writing has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, The Huffington Post, Sojourners, Her.meneutics, the Christian Century and more. Her next book , Silence, will be released in fall 2012. Follow at Tweetenuma and visit her website at www.enumaokoro.com