A week is made by many small exchanges but here is one that has colored all my thoughts. It came when, arriving back home after an appointment, I opened an email from someone I had offended with my words.
The offense occurred in a column I wrote the week before last about life’s many surprises. In it I had joked, at the end of a string of short humorous anecdotes, that the meds, which I called ‘feel-good pills’, given to my friend’s cat after some oral surgery, sounded pretty good to me and, as I heard it, could be had for ten bucks a pop on the street.
It was a quip. It was a throwaway line. And it wasn’t at all funny, as this reader made clear.
“While I enjoyed the intent of the above column,” she wrote, “I was very disappointed in the ending line about the cost of a ‘feel-good pill’ on the street. Seven weeks and three days ago, my 35-year-old daughter passed away after buying such a pill on the street. I don’t know if it cost 10 dollars or 10 cents, but what I do know is that it ended her life. Your ending was a less than sensitive attempt at humor.”
I felt sick reading this, and hit ‘reply.’
“I am so sorry,” I wrote to her. “You know, when I first typed that last sentence I felt a little tingling on my arms and thought THAT’S not what you want to say. But then a day passed and I had a houseful of people and when, just before my deadline on Friday afternoon, I went back to look for any typos, I somehow failed to read for meaning. Anyway, I never cut that part out.”
I knew even as I wrote this, that it was no kind of excuse This person’s child had lost her life doing something I had made a foolish and irresponsible joke about.
Somehow though, the lady appeared to be forgiving me, as an immediately following email showed.
“Terry, thank you for your kind response,” she wrote. “I prayed you would take my remarks in the heartfelt way I intended. My daughter helped so many people in her three-and-a-half years of sobriety. Her viewing was attended by nearly 1,000 people who waited almost two hours to pay their respects. We were blessed to have had her. She fought a really good fight but eventually made a bad decision that cost her her life. Our hearts are broken yet I believe she is whole, once again.”
“If you are interested and you have a free moment, take a look at the funeral home’s website – she included the link – “and see the endless comments made about her and the impact she had on so many lives. She truly mattered and for that we are grateful.”
Then she thanked me for allowing her to share. Thanked me, after my offense. Thanked and forgave me both.
I can’t recall ever having been the beneficiary of such generosity of spirit.
Nor can I recall having ever been offered such a clear lesson of how careful we must always be about how our words ‘land’ on the people within our hearing.
And talking of things learned, here’s another truth that this exchange helped me remember: namely that those people who have lost most are often the most compassionate people. Suffering scrapes the heart raw, and at first seems to hollow it out entirely. But then, by some grace beyond our understanding, it can somehow, sometimes, fill again, fuller than it was before.