Learning to Listen
It wasn't the best way to start a friendship. Sharp words, misunderstandings, quick judgments, followed by me closing my front door and crossing her off my list.
Til she came back the next day to apologize, and we stood there and talked and listened and talked some more. Grace went back and forth between us til we were both surprised to find we might like each other after all.
Months have passed, we've chatted a few times, but this past week we finally took time to sit down and really talk.
For four and a half hours we sat on the patio, under a slip of a moon, declaring guacamole and chips dinner. And I listened.
I'm not a good listener, at least not as good as I am at talking. Just this past week I was in a restaurant and the server took our orders without pencil or pad. She made eye contact, listened to each of us and brought back our food. I told my husband I could N.E.V.E.R. do that, I'd forget.
When my new friend sat down I told her, 'please talk with your mouth full. I know you haven't had dinner but I want to hear your story.'
We started with when she was ten and her entire family was traveling down a highway on a rainy night, and her mother grabbed onto the door handle. She woke up to see her lying feet away in a ditch, gone from her forever. At sixteen, and within months of each other, she lost her father to cancer and her older brother to an aneurysm. At sixteen an orphan. I didn't speak, except to keep track of details, like the waitress did when she asked what dressing I wanted on my salad. Stay in it, listen deep, pay attention.
She told me about her loves and losses, and finally getting married, and bringing four babies home.
She told me about the lump and lymph nodes, and the mastectomy, and the chemo and shaving her head, and wearing a ball cap, and the cinderblock on my chest felt even heavier than an hour before.
She told me how it felt to find out she was going to be a grandmother too soon; her daughter was still in high school, and after that little one was born they found out another was coming, from another daughter and there still hadn't been any proposals or celebrations.
We ate guacamole and chips, and sipped wine for four and a half hours. The lights of the neighborhood disappeared all around us. We stayed, swatting at the bugs the porch light drew to us.
Somewhere around midnight huge wings swooped through the trees over us, and we heard owls, calling one to another. And then a magical moment, here they came, a pair touched down on the live oak branch hanging overhead. Barred owls with brown and white feathers and huge eyes that looked straight ahead., They sat there silent, and for a moment I wondered if her story had drawn them.
We sat there, watching the owls and listening as they called to the one already flown away to a neighbor's tree. She leaned in and whispered that she'd never seen an owl, at all, let alone so nearby. The two lifted and flew away into the night. And her story was done.
I never took a note, I had no pencil, but I know her story. I know the name of every one of her children, how old they are, how old their children are, where they are in life, where she is, what her hopes and dreams for the next five years are. I know she doesn't particularly like chocolate, visiting San Francisco is on her bucket list, she's a 15 year cancer survivor, and is learning to be happy at the weight she's at now.
It wasn't the night to take my story out. One offering on the altar was enough.
I still don't know completely what to make of that evening. I do know we all have amazing stories just waiting for someone to listen to with their hearts, rather than a pencil. Hers is still bumping around inside me, working itself out, and I am changed for having heard it.