There is a reason why clichés are clichés. Yes, they are overused expressions that no respectable writer would dare scribble. (It’s a good thing I am not always respectable.) At the same time, however, the reason they are overused is because sometimes they fit exactly what you want to say. The expression, “You never know” is one of those clichés that just fit today. Every so often we all learn something about a person that surprises us, and I received a shock today that has left me profoundly sad.
I signed up to make dinner for a family in need as part of my church’s Meals that Heal Program. The only thing I knew was that the family had a grown son who had been severely disabled for a number of years, and was now in the process of dying. I did not recognize the name of the family, but I often do not know the people who are need. It’s just a small service I feel that I can perform in my busy life.
This morning I had some extra time, so I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook, but then I stumbled on the name from my Meals that Heal list, and my entire body arrested. I did know someone from this family. This was Ms. Emma’s family. I know Ms. Emma because she was a teacher’s aide in my children’s preschool. I never knew her last name because in the South preschoolers call everyone by his/her first name. For some of my children’s friends, I will always be Ms. Cara.
Two of my children had the privilege of seeing Ms. Emma three days a week. At drop off, she would greet kids and moms alike with a glorious smile and a twinkle that always proclaimed that Ms. Emma loved children. For me, that is the most important characteristic a preschool teacher (in truth, all teachers) should have. A child cannot learn if she doesn’t feel loved and safe. Ms. Emma always made my children feel both.
Every year I gave all the teachers and aides a Christmas gift. The first year I gave one to Ms. Emma, she tracked me down in the hallway to give me a grand hug and a hearty thank you. I wish I could remember the gift, but it has been at least seven years, so I cannot recall what the gift was. (Seriously, I cannot recall what I ate for breakfast this morning.) I doubt the content of the gift really mattered then or now. What was significant was Emma’s graciousness and gratitude. It was her way, and I always felt warm in her presence.
Even though I saw Ms. Emma three days a week for three years, I had no idea she had a grown, disabled son for whom she cared at home. Why would I? She always acted as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
I have since learned that in 1991, when 19 year-old Jeff—a strong, athletic, and handsome young adult—was on his way home from work, a car struck him. The driver was supposedly in a big hurry, turned in front of Jeff’s motorcycle, and knocked him under the wheels of an on-coming car. He was not expected to live, but he did, only to suffer from a debilitating heart attack almost 10 days later. Most of the time since the accident, Jeff has been unable to communicate. Ms. Emma and her husband have fed him, bathed him, dressed him, dispensed medicine and met whatever needs he had for 22 years.
I never knew.
And, I wish I had. I ask myself why I wish I knew, and the only answer is that I could have shown Ms. Emma some compassion, offered some help, and kept her and her son in my prayers. I feel guilty coming this late to Ms. Emma’s journey with her son.
When I dropped off the meal, Ms. Emma introduced me to Jeff. Ms. Emma and their family have made Jeff the center of their lives. His hospital bed is in their den, and Jeff is surrounded by all sorts of trinkets that would be important to him: pictures, mugs, notes, drawings, and even a sign that read “Jeff’s Parking”. I spoke to Jeff while Ms. Emma stroked his head and gave him kisses. Even at 41, Jeff is still her baby. I do not know if Jeff understood me, but he did react to his mother’s smile.
On the way out, Ms. Emma showed me pictures of Jeff before the accident, and she talked about his current illness. She said I could come by any time to visit, and I plan to do so. What struck me the most, however, is that she kept repeating, “You never know.” In a way she was warning me about my own children and my own future. We never do know what lies in store for us, and we never really know what our friends and neighbors may be experiencing. It was a powerful reminder for me to tread easy with people. That is, show kindess whenever possible because you just never know.