Reserve of Strength Found in a Stranger
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 02:02
Last Monday evening was an especially eventful night for me. My friend’s father passed away, and I forgot my GOCard as I left Lau to call him and became frustrated when the security guard wouldn’t let me back into the building. As the night wore on, I experienced what I’ve often felt as someone who tends to wear her emotions on her sleeve: the discomfort of my peers and the kindness of strangers.
As I stood outside Lau in the nighttime cold, expressing my condolences over the phone, I was brought back to my own father’s suicide just before my 18th birthday. On top of sympathy and empathy for my friend, I felt a bizarre jealousy: My father’s death had been far from peaceful, and I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.
Suddenly overcome by emotion, I sat down on a bench facing Healy. I simmered in anger at the depression that consumed the father I loved, anger at the universe, anger at everyone who had what I didn’t. More than just anger, I felt something else. Was it loneliness? Defenselessness? Fear? Then it hit me. Shriveled. I felt so shriveled up. I sat there and sobbed.
Six people walked past. Four were Georgetown students. None of them stopped, but they rather peered at me like one might look at a panhandler: curious enough to glance but quick to turn their heads painfully far in the opposite direction so as to avoid eye contact and the responsibility of acknowledging me. While in another moment I may have made a perfunctory attempt to look dignified, how much can a sloppily tearful girl really pull herself together in the time it takes an onlooker to pass?
Two people did acknowledge me, though. The first was a homeless man, carrying two armfuls of plastic bags, who, as he walked past, nodded at me and said, “Tomorrow will be better, sweetheart.”
The second was the security guard with whom I had just been so aggravated. She approached slowly with her cane, leaving her shift as the clock tower gonged midnight.
As she got closer, she asked me, “Are you alright?”
“No you aren’t. What’s the matter?”
“My father died,” I said.
“Was he sick?” she asked.
“In a way,” I said. “He took his own life.”
“Oh my, oh my, oh my,” she said grasping my arm and proceeding to ask about my mother and my family.
“Can you say a little prayer? Are you religious?” she asked me.
I responded, honestly, “I am, but I don’t really believe in God any more.”
I asked if she was religious, and she said yes, very. She put her hand on my shoulder, closed her eyes and prayed for me, aloud, for about five whole minutes. She prayed, “Lord, do not forget this girl.” She prayed, “Lord, you are her shepherd, whom shall she fear?” She prayed, “Jesus, take this girl upon your wing.”
She said to me, “You can cry and cry, but it won’t bring him back. Nothing will, no one will. Let God help you; trust that he will help you.”
I introduced myself, and she responded “Madeleine, my name is Pat. I am always here to help you if you want to talk to me. Thirty-six years I’ve worked here, and it’s because I love you kids so much.”
Pat hugged me and told me, “Remember to study.”
As she and I went our separate ways, all I could think was that you don’t have to be a Jesuit-educated student to be a woman or man for others. On a campus that is home to over 6,000 people, it is all too easy to overlook the opportunities to grow close to and learn from unexpected teachers. In letting ourselves be open, we allow for the off chance that someone unexpected — something unexpected — might pick up the slack.
In that moment, and now, I can’t see any harm having come from my vulnerability, only the stunning beauty of how kind a stranger can be.
Madeleine Ringwald is a sophomore in the College.