This photo, take during late-night hours in the surgical family waiting room at an all too familiar hospital started out as two perfect clementines pulled from an emergency bag of snacks my sister packed.
With a respect for privacy in mind, I’ll say that slowly pulling off the peels helped keep waiting hands busy. Fooling with them like puzzle pieces relieved the tension a bit. They were so fragrant I kept inhaling that citrus perfume until my mother said, “Enough already!” half in laughter, half in exasperation.
The hours had passed until it had grown dark and there were only five people left in the waiting room. Night rain splattered the windows overheard, and the wind was howling. My husband was snoring open-mouthed on a long low couch before a nattering television, and my sister amused herself (and us) by videotaping him with her smartphone.
We had hours yet to go, and as I fiddled with the vibrant orange peels I was trying to put pieces together in my mind that wouldn’t fit back into a comforting whole.
A few predominant thoughts emerged and crystalized: This is what it is. This is what keeps happening—life. Choices are simple, if you push aside desire, which muddles everything. Just choose and move forward wholeheartedly. If you fail, try harder or choose differently. Strive to be good and forthright and empathetic, because small gestures of kindness have the power and the energy to overcome darkness and despair. Always have mercy.
We had experienced instances of this all evening. The surgeon who held the frightened patient’s hand. The priest who stayed up to reappear so late into the night to offer a smile and another prayer. The nurses, whose patience surely must have been worn threadbare, who remained firm, plain-spoken, and above all that was needed at any given moment, calm.
The next day, as I tried to label this thread of humanity, I ended up calling it “the sweetness among the pieces.” It held us together. It buoyed us when we flagged. And it helped us through to the next step, moment by moment.
Today, we are all still here, and I am grateful. I can also feel the spot, right next to my heart, where the seat of my convictions has slightly shifted. I am hyper-focused on it now because of the intensity of certain circumstances, but for lack of better terminology I’m defining it as “calm immediacy.” Like the sweet orange segment pictured among the peelings, it’s a compact reserve of spirit-filled fortitude upon which to draw when darkness—grief, fear, anger, denial, etc.—threatens to overwhelm.
Like love, compassion is a well with no bottom. And like gazing into a well, we can find our own features in its likeness, when we are thirsty. Drinking in compassion sustains us, but also promotes its own increase, because it shows us how to share our cup in turn. It shouldn’t take a crisis or catastrophe to find and dip into the font, but it so often seems to, doesn’t it? I guess it’s a human failing, this tendency to dry up, but I hope we always find the path to compassion’s wellspring and keep the fragrant juices flowing.
p.s. and don’t forget about rest and healing laughter…