LETTER: Gift from a stranger

Walking in wintery conditions in Nelson I saw a woman sitting on one of the downtown benches.

Walking in wintery conditions in Nelson I saw a woman sitting on one of the downtown benches. She looked to be in her 40s, but with eyes that lay bare a much older soul, and indicative of great despair.

I sat down beside her, waiting, listening to her silence, watching the tears roll down her cheeks. She didn’t stop her tears; she didn’t stop her nose from running. She sat, far away in her mind — remembering, hurting, grieving? — I did not know.

For more than 30 minutes we both sat on the bench, her in her world, and me, wishing I could take her place, take away some of her torment. Suddenly she turned her head and the most depressing, tear-filled eyes you can imagine looked into mine. She said “Do you like this time of year, I mean Christmas and everything?” “Not particularly,” I said. “Too commercial.” “Do you?” I asked. With heart-wrenching sobs she said “no.” I asked if she wanted to talk about what she was feeling.

She looked down. Was she thinking my question was not sincere? Was she afraid for her mind, afraid for her heart? I wasn’t sure so I put my gloved hand on top of her cold, slender fingers and waited. Soon she began to speak. Her words were at times not understandable, mixed with her deep sobbing and heavy sighs.

She spoke of how, except for Christmas time, she could keep her horrors at bay. But, when the darkness lasts most of the day, the Christmas carols start playing on the radio and in the stores, her fears grow inside like an uncontainable, massive tumor. She talked of people running around with fake smiles on their faces, giving Christmas greetings to passersby, as they briskly look for that perfect gift that will soon be forgotten.

The sobbing stops her speech as she fights to gain control of her emotions. I wonder why she fights, why can’t she just feel her anguish and cry? She tells me that for years she “faked it” with family and friends, pretending to feel the joy, and love of the season.

She related that when returning to her home she felt great despondency thinking of the people she was with, the great amounts of money being spent for a smile, and above all, totally isolated from the human race. She speaks of the week-long illnesses she suffered after these times, her self-abusive behaviour, her self-destructive thoughts, her desire that it “all just end”

Finally she turns to me and asks “would you understand this if you were my friend? Would you understand that it is not my wish to be this way, it is my reality? If you were my friend would you tell me not to live in the past, but rather enjoy what I have now? If you were my friend would you accept that my Christmases had no Christ in it, it was Xmas Time? Would you accept my refusal of invitations knowing it is not that I don’t want to enjoy myself, but rather that my heart does not allow it?”

My mind was swirling with her questions, so I asked if I could have a few moments to think about what she had said. Again she looked down, continued to cry, her hand holding mine so tight; she wanted me to understand, I knew that much. However, her words had told me she could detect insincerity quickly — she had probably done so all her life.

Many themes ran through my mind — societal expectation that Christmas is a time of family, a time of joy, laughter, and I suppose peace and safety. This lady beside me had apparently experienced little of this in her life, and never during the holiday season. I thought of her abuse, and the fact that being home from school would give her no reprieve — it may have been for 24 hours — day in, day out — until school began again.

I berated myself for not recognizing this probability, not only for this poor soul, but for others who have told me they hated Christmas. I, like hundreds of others, said, “Get over it — this is Christmas.” How selfish, self-centered, and uncaring I have been.

What could I say? What words would be comforting, and sincere? Could I tell her I have been like her friends, yet due to our meeting I will be no longer? I wondered what her friends were like, why couldn’t they understand? I assumed her siblings probably did, but perhaps they succumbed to the expectations of the season.

I held her hand tighter and asked if I could give her a hug. Her face lowered, her arms at her side. She said “Yes.” While hugging her I prayed that she feel comfortable with who she is, that she does not have to enjoy this season, that it is natural that her memories would come back to haunt her; drawing her into her own holocaust. I prayed that she does what is necessary to survive the season. I prayed that she understand that this is her struggle to accept her truth, and survive, that it is not her responsibility to make those in her life feel better, it is theirs.

I hugged her until it seemed that all energy had been drained from my body. I put my arms down, took her hand in mine, and did the best I could to reiterate my thoughts and prayers to her. She cried and listened while I talked. It seemed not one muscle moved in her body. Her facial expression never changed. Her grip on my hand never changed. I am not sure why, but I never assumed she was not hearing, she was simply doing what she was conditioned to do — be still, show nothing, and maybe you won’t get hurt again with false hopes.

When I finished talking, trying so hard to comfort, but having no indication I did, she stood up. Shivering from the cold she said “Thank you, thank you for listening, and being honest.” She turned, head down, her body slumped over, and walked away trying ever so hard to be invisible.

I sat a while longer pondering the life-altering moment I just had, and thanked the Lord for the opportunity.

I share this with you so the next time you hear words that sound similar to hers, don’t write the person off. They may have similar unspoken stories. Can you imagine the despair she felt to share her heart and soul with a complete stranger? She was my gift this Christmas!

G. Brown, Nelson