Any Story but Their Own

Have you ever kind of bumped into a stranger’s story? For example, one time I was at a stoplight and watched a woman climb out of the driver’s seat of her vehicle, take her purse from the back, and walk away down the street. Eventually a very angry man got out of the passenger’s seat and flounced to the driver’s side, getting in and driving away. I always wondered how that story started and how it ended. I mean, I’ve definitely made up the rest of the story, but I don’t truly know.

Last night I went to the Ash Wednesday service with an old friend, and then we went to the Cheesecake Factory for dessert with another good friend. I pretty quickly forgot that I had what could be described as religious dirt on my face, and we shared about our problems and had wine and cheesecake. We may have grumbled about politics a little, and then somehow got to the point where we were all shouting about mayonnaise (I am against; they am pro. I try to maintain friendships even when my friends are clearly lacking in judgment).

All of a sudden, a tall and pretty woman was at my elbow. I noticed this because she had her hand on my arm. I know a lot of people in this oddly small town, so was struggling to place her and was almost to the conclusion that I didn’t know her at all when she asked, “Could I have a moment?”

I said, “What?”

She said again, “Could I have a moment?” I was…alarmed. Was this about the mayonnaise? Was this about Trump? Why did she want me to leave my friends? I’ve had a couple of odd confrontations from strangers before based on what I was talking about, and yet I couldn’t find a way to make this one particularly make sense.

“Um, may I ask what this is about?” I said. She gestured to her forehead, indicating the ashes. Still a bit perplexed, I did agree to step aside with her since it seemed that the ashes couldn’t be the start of a story where someone chops me up into little pieces or at least hits or yells at me.

Next to the table, she took both my hands. She looked down into my face, speechless, and I was…waiting, a bit on edge, still confused.

“Thank you,” she finally got out. She said, “I couldn’t be there tonight. It’s a really special night.” She grew teary and I reached around in my brain as this was clearly a person needing some kind of comfort or touch. “Thank you for being there. Thank you for being here.”

I looked up at her, and I said something about how she was there with us in spirit. I didn’t really know what it was she needed, but it did seem to be that. She asked if she could give me a hug, and I looked at her tearful face and was fine with it. She bent down and gave me a somewhat awkward hug, and thanked me some more, and I told her to have a good evening. Then she left, and my bemused friends asked for an update. Explaining the encounter, I said, “I think she’s going through something,” and they agreed. These were the right friends for this to happen with.

We sort of awkwardly resumed talking, and thankfully she had interrupted their enjoyment of completely disgusting me by talking about mayonnaise. We were a little quieter for a while, and then eventually resumed our merriment and sharing of struggles.

As she was apparently leaving the restaurant in a little while, she paused and mouthed, “Thank you,” once again. We all gestured a kind greeting.

I don’t know how good of a job I did at being there for that lady, who honestly I thought was brave if a bit surprising. But I did feel like I was supposed to be there for her and just be what she needed even if I didn’t really understand my role. I think we are supposed to just be what others need at times. Maybe we don’t get to know the rest of the story, like Aslan says in The Horse and His Boy. I’ve always hated that. And so I make up the stories myself, and sometimes I revise them and ponder them. I thought she had lost someone she loved, and was struck on this day that is a reminder of mortality. Or instead, maybe she had lost her faith. And then she found it again. I don’t know why she didn’t to go church and instead was probably having some kind of enormous salad with bacon and blue cheese. But Ash Wednesday meant something to her. And I hope she continues to heal from whatever her story was, and we’ll keep working on our own.


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