Yesterday I saw a blind man with his seeing eye dog trying to cross Park Avenue. It was rush hour, pedestrians were spilling over the sidewalk onto the road, cars were jammed and an ambulance was trying to get through. Perhaps it was the squealing sirens and the people walking against the lights that confused the dog, but he started to lead his master across the road right when the jam cleared momentarily and the cars started to go. I was next to him and reached out to pull him back to the safety of the sidewalk, apologizing loudly and trying to explain that the lights were not green and that he needed to wait. Fearing for his life, I asked him if he needed any help getting to where he needed to go. He said ‘No, I’m ok thank you’, so I replied ‘Ok’, though I was full of doubt. As we crossed the street, I walked behind him and watched anxiously as he somehow avoided the construction barriers that were placed haphazardly on the corner of the side walk when we arrived on the other side. Thankfully this side of the street had less pedestrians so he turned right and continued unimpeded, uptown.
I stood on the street corner watching him and his dog walk away until he disappeared amongst the crowd, suppressing the urge to run after him and beg that he let me take him safely to his destination. I had to respect his independence, so I continued on my way to the park, trying to stop the tears welling up in my eyes from falling so I wouldn’t look like a sad, crazy person.
Seeing people with disabilities has always made my heart ache but these days, my reactions are much stronger. As I think and write about this now, on the surface I’m sure it’s because of all the times I was helpless to prevent JP from falling and hurting himself many times as paralysis set in on his left side. When he walked he bumped into people and things because his vision was impaired and sometimes towards the end, he fell out of bed before the hospice nurses let us have a hospital bed at home. Of course, all these sad memories are triggered when I see people with disabilities now, but something made me question if this was the whole truth.
Sadness always leads me to think of JP. I used to think that sadness would eventually give way to happiness, as if one would follow the other in linear fashion. It’s been almost five years since JP passed away and when I think of him, it is always tinged with varying levels of pain. But underlying this pain is joy, an entirely new emotion that surprises me with it’s freshness and unfamiliarity. This joy is amazing, I have never felt it in such fullness before. I don’t know where it comes from, perhaps it’s a product or reward for learning to live with sorrow, for facing the dark in all it’s gruesome magnitude until it shaped me into someone less resistant to pain.
I am indescribably grateful that my baseline is more joy now, than sorrow. But it is a strange thing to have sorrow and joy co-existing. I have JP to thank for this. For opening my heart to a fuller experience of life so that I can feel deep sorrow not just for myself, but for someone else. So that I can stand on a street corner in the middle of the Manhattan rush hour and cry for the struggles of life that a blind man has to face.
I would not wish grief on anyone, but what kind of world would this be if we chose to feel our pain? To open ourselves up to feel sorrow and anguish. I suspect that deep and soulful connection for not just humans but all living beings requires no effort if we are able to embrace the full range of our own, individually unique mix of emotions, good and bad – the love and light as well as the despair, anger and pain. I am certain that because sorrow and fear are tangible emotions that I taste daily, I have no problem empathizing with a stranger.
Several years ago I wrote:
“How satisfying to dedicate a few moments each day to stand in someone else’s shoes, understand their perspective and make an honest attempt to be kind. Compassion takes practice.”
Today, I would say that “yes, compassion takes practice but it also takes courage”. Courage to follow the rabbit into the deepest, darkest corners of your heart and mind where pain and fear are carefully hidden. Shine light there, do battle with the dragons of the dark. Don’t be afraid to taste all the countless hurts you bear, make time to heal them and allow them to transform you. You are not alone in the dark. Someone else feels bad too.
Grieving for JP is still brutal, raw and difficult. My path of sadness and pain is well worn, immediately accessible, but because of this, so now is joy and hopefully, compassion.