No matter how old we are (or how old we get!) there will always be “things” that, in an instant, transport us back to our childhood. For some, the magic carpet is the scent of a favorite family recipe drifting thru the house during the holidays. For others, it is a special place, a piece of furniture, a childhood home or church, a photograph, a letter, a bedtime lullaby, a book, a pet phrase, a seasonal tradition – a stuffed animal that we’re embarrassed to admit has never left our side. Often the memory brings with it feelings of warmth, comfort, joy, security– a sense of belonging and of being connected. But, sometimes the “things” that transport us back in time and the emotions they evoke are ones we’d just as soon forget: abusive words and actions, trauma, the recurrence of an illness, the unmistakable scent of a former lover, a schoolyard or playground where we were bullied, a scar, the scene of an accident – feelings of isolation, rejection or abandonment.
And so it was, as I stood in the doorway of the Grand Ballroom on the second day of the Conference, cafeteria lunch tray in hand, surveying a room of nearly 600 attendees most of whom were complete strangers to me, wondering where I should sit! I was right back in middle school, slightly less introverted I suppose, but not much, and, consequently, mostly paralyzed with fear. As fate would have it, one of the few open seats happened to be right next to the friend I mentioned in my earlier post (http://tinyurl.com/owekwfd) and I made a beeline for it, hoping I’d get there before anyone else found it – and I did! No sooner had I settled into my seat than my friend started introducing me to the others at table, a group of 8 young women who were serving as Conference volunteers and their supervisor. “This is my friend, Don Blackwell,” she said simply, as my eyes moved from left to right greeting each volunteer with a smile and being greeted by theirs in return.
That is until they reached a young woman seated two places to my right and the tears that were streaming down both sides of her face. As the table grew silent, I quickly glanced at her name tag and realized it was someone I had corresponded with for months on social media, but had never met. Reflexively, we got up, walked towards each other and warmly embraced for what seemed like several minutes. “So glad to finally meet you,” our hearts whispered to one another almost simultaneously. Simply put, it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Her supervisor broke the silence with this: “I guess they know each other?” My friend responded with a smile, “I’m betting they met on Twitter!” We laughed with the others as we separated, now both consumed with emotion, and promised to set aside some time before the afternoon was over to get caught up and learn a little more about each other’s story.
A few hours later, we met again, as the Conference exhibitors were packing up their booths. I asked about her tears. “I was deeply touched by your book,” she began. “When I read it and we connected on social media I felt as though you were a dad in a way. You reached out and shared a piece of your heart and I felt encouraged and supported. Because of all of the issues I’ve had, I’ve never been able to be close with my own family. My dad and I have tried to mend our relationship, but it’s been hard – for lots of reasons. I appreciate my dad and love him for who he is but honestly it was hard not having my parents’ support, when I was living in my own mental hell. So, connecting with a dad who was there for his daughter meant so much to me. It was overwhelming really.” I hardly knew what to say, except “I’m sorry you felt alone in your suffering” and “I’m glad my words helped you (and your beautiful soul) feel less alone”.
No sooner had we said our good-byes, than I saw my speaker friend hurrying towards one of the exit doors across the room suitcase in tow. I literally ran to catch up with her, shouting as I did, “you’d really leave without giving me a hug?!?” With that she turned, saying “follow me to the escalator – I’m late for the airport.” Reaching the top of the escalator, we embraced a final time. “I’m worried about you,” I said, catching my breath and half talking to myself. “Your teardrop worries me”. I could feel her exhale in my arms. “I just need to make it a few more weeks,” she confided, “and then I can take a break, then I will take a break.” “You’re doing enough,” I offered in reply. “In fact, long ago you’d already done enough. Trust me.” And with those words, she was off – and so was I. Two days, two teardrops, two hugs – and three words uttered by a friend that I likely will never forget.