Grief had ripped through his soul, leaving his heart jagged and exposed. He determined in that moment of pain that no one would ever again be allowed close enough to cause him harm. Over the years, his determination only faltered once. She was a beauty, one who captured his heart and imagination. He fell for her, hopelessly and madly. He left for his job on the railroad, promising to return at week’s end. He kept his promise and was full of hope as he approached her door. The sickening kick-to-the-gut that betrayal and cheating always bring is what greeted him. Her flippancy is what ripped his heart into tatters, as she purred, “You were gone for a week, what did you expect me to do? Wait?”
He vowed to never let anyone get close to him again. He took a vow of bachelorhood, buried himself in his work, accrued a savings account; and he determined to simply live a good life. It all changed after his nephew and niece-in-law had a baby girl. This little wisp of a youngster smiled at him and melted the icy fortress that he had carefully constructed around his heart. To his surprise, the icy defenses now served to usher in a tenderness as the ice transformed into rivulets of love. He was tickled to be her great uncle, and he took to calling her “wisp-girl” under his breath.
When she was just a toddler, the wisp-girl introduced him to the comingling of sweet with the bitter. His brother-in-law (the child’s grandpa), was a former boxing champ who numbed his pain with the sedative of alcohol. It caught up to him, and he was now dying of cancer. The family had gathered together, saddened by the declining health and resolve of their patriarch. That’s when the wisp-girl began twirling in the center of the living room. She stopped breathlessly, and grinned winningly at her grandpa. He laughed mirthfully, and the pattern repeated over and over until the room was filled with the peals of silver laughter. Silver laughter is only heard when it’s offered from a heart that is heavy with affliction, yet somehow the soul breaks free from the pain and heaviness as it dances triumphantly in a joyful defiance. That day, the family embraced their silver laughter as they watched the antics of the wisp-girl and her dying grandfather.
That was the last weekend of the grandpa’s life, and the bachelor great-uncle resolved that the wisp-girl needed him to step up and into the void. So, he did. His sister accompanied him, and they moved in with their grief-stricken widow-sister (the wisp-girl’s granny). Grief is a jealous companion. If it goes unchecked, it will soon push away everyone who seeks closeness with you. That’s the unfortunate truth of what happened, and soon the grief-stricken granny widow demanded that her siblings move out.
The little wisp-girl came over to visit the new house of her great aunt and uncle a few times, and she lit up their hearts like a holiday tree. Eventually, though, family loyalties were exploited, politics were bitterly played, and a division ensued. The wisp-girl’s father determined to show loyalty to his widowed-mother; and the visits ended.
The wisp-girl sent secret letters to her beloved great-aunt and great-uncle, begging them to correspond. The great-uncle sought to reply, but his sister was afraid of the repercussions that it would bring on the wisp-girl. Her intent was to protect the wisp-girl, but instead, years of love and companionship were lost. At the funeral for the beloved great-aunt, the bachelor great-uncle embraced his wisp-girl in a fierce hug. They wept openly as he confessed, “I tried my damnedest to get her to respond to your letters, but she was so afraid of causing distance between you and your granny. I thought of you every night and every day, and memorized every word of your letters.”
The wisp-girl’s father was so moved by the tender pain of his uncle and the deep sorrow of his daughter that he relented and the visits began again. What an unlikely pair they were. The wisp-girl shared her beloved great-uncle’s stubborn determination and strength; but she was akin to a bald eagle. One moment, she could be gracefully soaring with a majestic air about her and the next, her talons would be exposed as she defended the ones that she loved. They would sit side by side, close enough to let their elbows rub as they talked. She would prattle on about life, boys, inner city injustice, her love of kids, and her desire to attend college and make a difference in the world. He would smile at her enthusiasm, and wonder at the seemingly endless stores of energy that she possessed. He would speak of his memories made on the railroad, of the Detroit Tigers roster, and eventually of his life growing up in rural Michigan. Her words were often faster than an express train, his were peppered with “damn”s and “dammit”s.
She called him with the news of her acceptance into the private college of her choice, her squeals eliciting his words of, “I am damned proud of you, girl!” She called to sing him “Happy birthday” from her dorm room, and they would talk about life, boys, and The Tigers. On summer breaks, she would weave her arm through his as they sat basking in the sunlight on his front stoop while her brother mowed his lawn. One day, she told him of her desire to work with people who were poverty-stricken and he said, “You be careful. It’s not work that I would have picked out for you, but I’ll be damned if I let anyone stop you from it.”
He checked himself into a nursing home the week before spring break of her Senior Year in college. She found him in his room, basking in the sunlight, with his face uplifted towards the window. Peace and joy radiated from him. She kissed his cheek, and they said their goodbyes; both knowing that his 90+ years on earth were ending soon.
Days later, she stood tearfully at his funeral.
A while later, she burst into tears of gratefulness and love as realization sunk in. He had paid her school bills out of his estate. All those stolen years when they could not see each other, he was saving and making money and investing money. He didn’t just do it for her, but there were kids from his neighborhood who had also managed to wiggle their way into his heart. Despite the pain of losses that he had endured, despite his jagged heart, he learned the art of raw love. No walls, no refinements, simply love for the ones that were placed in his life when his heart was raw.
The wisp-girl strives to embrace the lessons of her beloved great-uncle as she continually resists the fear-filled temptations to pull back into a fortress of pain from her past; instead opening up her jagged heart for those who have been placed into her life.
May we all be graced with raw love.