The H-word

“I had three sons,” she said.

I’m nosier than I used to be, because life is too short to not hear wisdom from wise people, especially old wise people.

It was the word had that made me pry. Had: the three-letter summary of enormous and chilling stories. The word had is used for times and people that are gone but cannot be forgotten.  It is used for important things.  If you have six eggs and you drop one, it’s probably not important to you that you had six.  You only care that you now have five.  That one egg wasn’t special to you.

Not so with enormous and chilling stories. The H-word is important in those. She could have said, “I have two sons,” but no: she had three.

She pulled the white blanket around her thin body, over the IV and the small heart monitor box that she said was heavy.  Behind her the IV pump hummed out a rhythm. In front of her she saw memories.  She looked past me, where I had taken a seat on the window ledge for story time. She looked down the six floors to the river, and past Elkhart, all the way to the West Coast.

He was an ambitious water and power man in California. He worked overtime and had become a supervisor. He was hoping to retire early.

He was 54 when he walked into a building to inspect a newly installed “thing”. She couldn’t remember what it was called, but the installation was faulty.  It exploded.  Her son had just enough time to throw his arm across his face before one side of his body burned to a crisp.

He didn’t die for three weeks. In fact when the doctor’s discussed skin grafting, he suggested they make some changes to his nose while they were at it.  Then his wounds became infected.

“That must have been a hard time for you,” I said.

“Well, even now….” she paused. She was crying.  “It’s still hard.”

And I, the statue on the window ledge, was crying too.  I always stare in stunned silence at these noble strangers who share the most difficult moments of their lives in five minutes.

I’ve learned two things from these wise people.  They always pick out the good things to focus on. And they don’t try to say tacky things about why bad things happen. They don’t have pat answers.

“Well, it’s the way it happened,” she said.  “And I still have two sons.”

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