When I was a first-year high school science teacher, I spent a LOT of time at school, as all first-year teachers do. Everything was new and overwhelming and I had no depth of previous experience to draw from, so I usually spent each evening pulling together my lessons for the next day while feebly trying to recover from the ones I had just taught. Although in later years I would still often work late, there is nothing in the world quite like the particular exhaustion of the first-year teacher. Around 6 pm I would still be slumped over the keyboard of my Mac, three hours past the end of my "day", high heels discarded beside me, the sides of my hands covered in Vis-a-Vis marker, the sleeve of my denim jacket dusted with chalk. A human eraser, if you will. My desk would typically be littered with a half-eaten bag of M&M's, a lukewarm Coke, piles of papers, broken pencils and random things I had confiscated from my students during the day, love notes. . .gum. . .those little skateboards you skate with your fingers. My heart would be full but my mind would be vacant as I tried to pull my act together.
And this is where Bruce would find me. Bruce was our evening custodian, in charge of cleaning my room in the science wing as a part of his rounds. If you are a first-year teacher, my prayer is that you will have a Bruce in your life. Just when I felt like I couldn't go on, there was no way I could get together the energy to make it to the copy room and run that lab I had just created let alone set it up, Bruce would pop in with his big smile, his white hair, and his hearty laugh. That little bit of friendship and human contact would be just enough to bring me back to the land of the living, and he'd send me off to the copy room with a smile on my face.
Our conversations were usually nothing profound, he'd tease me about being a "rookie" and how late I was working (again) and we'd catch up about family and weather and the like. At Christmastime, he noticed I was stringing up a few lights around my room and offered to bring me some trees from his house to decorate. Of course, I couldn't turn him down so we trimmed my room together, giving it that little touch of cheer that was even more special because it came from a friend. We chatted so often about so many of the same things that I can't remember, but one conversation in particular has stayed in my heart all these years.
It was a spring evening and the sun was just slanting in when we ran into each other in the hallway, I on my way to the copy room and Bruce pushing his trash can towards the Physics end of the building. We stopped to chat as usual, but when I asked how he was I noticed tears starting to form in his eyes. It wasn't long before tears started to spill out of mine, too. Cancer. He had cancer. They found spots on his brain. I can't even remember the details because my mind was swirling, "How could this happen to my friend?" Of course, in typical Bruce fashion, he was trying to be positive as he explained everything to me, but I could feel the undercurrent of hurt and uncertainty in his wavering voice. Time froze there in the hallway, the moment etched in my mind. Then he said the thing I will never forget.
"I just didn't know. They never told us. They never told us smoking was bad for you! If I just would have known, maybe. . ."
As his voice trailed off, the look on his face, the confusion and pain in his voice, they were enough to break my heart. Although he could have easily been my grandfather, he looked at me pleadingly as a small child would.
"How could he have known?" I thought to myself. And if he had known, would it have changed anything? There are no guarantees in life, no magic formula one can follow for a perfect one free of pain. The one thing I did know, even at the ripe old age of 23, was that there was no use in him beating himself up about tobacco or anything else for that matter. Forward is the only way time goes.
"Bruce," I said, trying to comfort him. "There is no way you could have known. It's OK. It's OK, Bruce. It's not your fault." And I made sure I caught his eye so he could see how much I meant it.
"It's not your fault."
He bit his lip and nodded.
I hugged him.
I believed that with my whole heart.
I still do.
I think of Bruce often, especially any time I feel myself getting hung up or worried about the choices I make for myself or my family. Sometimes we just don't know. I believe we're all just trying to do the best we can with the physical, financial, and emotional resources we have available to us. So any time I get hung up on a decision and researching and thinking and weighing options, I tell myself, "You know, Jen, sometimes you just aren't going to know. Just do the best you can." And what kinds of choices are the things that are the most essential about us, really? What remains when we are gone? The answer, from my friend Bruce, is simple.
The most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Bruce and I cried a little bit more together that evening before we parted ways. The next few years brought many changes in our lives. My classroom was moved and I had a new evening custodian, Bruce was on and off work, I became a much more efficient teacher (spending less evenings slumped over my computer in exhaustion and more actually living an adult life) and eventually left for my first maternity leave. Shortly after my son was born, I learned that Bruce had passed away. I wept for my friend, but mostly for myself. I would never see his tall white-haired frame rounding the corner to greet me with a smile, we would never share a laugh or a story or a lukewarm Coke again.
I rejoiced that he was free from pain.
But cried because he didn't know.
He didn't know the impact he made on my life, the little golden thread of friendship woven into the tapestry of my being. I had been blessed just from being a beneficiary of his kindness and warmth at a time when I was a little bit lonely and more than a little bit tired.
And he'd never know because he thought he was just being himself. . .emptying the trash, doing his job, sharing a smile on the way. Never imagining that there was anything special or "golden" about it.
I am also imagining that there are some things you just don't know, too.
There are people out there whose lives you are touching today that will remember you for years to come.
You are weaving yourself into the tapestry of the world by your mere presence in it.
Just you. . .showing up at work or yoga or preschool, just you. . .going to the grocery store, going to church or the gym or the library. Just you. . .working on your latest project, taking that conference call, picking up the mail or the dry cleaning, posting on Facebook, reading stories to your kids, taking your car for an oil change.
Yet even below our awareness, through the simple living of our daily life, we can be making a difference in someone else's.
Who knows what stranger or friend our kind smiles are touching today? Who really needed a laugh and we gave it to them? Who was lonely and our "hello" made them feel less alone? Who saw our Facebook post and it gave them encouragement?
Were you the answer to someone's prayer today? Was that kind word you said going to be a golden thread in someone's tapestry, the way Bruce was in mine?
It's awe-inspiring to imagine the impact you are making in everyday ways.
So, just keep being you, little golden thread.
You're being woven into so many people's lives, and all you have to do is be yourself.
We all have a lot of choices to make today, and sometimes we just aren't going to know.
But the most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain, but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.