I can tell how much Lotte could soothe a sick person, just based on how much she does for my heart, which should practically be in the ER… She’s spending the next few days in town here with an older friend of hers; the doctors say she doesn’t have much time left, and she wants Lotte around now as she gets close to the end.
I drove out with Lotte a few weeks ago to visit the parish priest in St***, the next town over — he’s an old family friend. It was Lotte and Sophie and me. We got in around four. When we pulled up outside the church, we saw the sweet old man sitting on a bench in the churchyard in the shade of two tall walnut trees. As soon as he saw Lotte, he seemed practically rejuvenated, he jumped up and forgot to even use his cane, hobbling over to meet her! She rushed over to him and got him to sit back down, and settled down next to him on the bench. She passed on her father’s best wishes, and even hugged the minister’s filthy mud-caked little son, the apple of his wrinkly eye :P I wish you could have seen how caring she was to the old man, talking extra loud to make sure he could hear her, teasing him about how only the good die young…congratulating him for finally making up his mind to go to this health clinic in New York she’d heard good things about, and telling him how much healthier and peppier he seemed since the last time she’d seen him :) Meanwhile, I was chatting with the minister’s wife. The old man had perked up a lot, and when I complimented his wife on the beautiful walnut trees that were keeping us so nicely in the shade, he jumped in and started, a little haltingly, to tell us their story. “No one knows who planted the older one,” he said; “some say it was this minister, some say that one. But the younger one there is the same age as my wife, fifty years this October. Her father planted it in the morning, and she was born that same evening. He was the minister at this church before me, and I can’t start to tell you how he loved that tree — and goodness knows I love it just as much. My wife was sitting underneath it, knitting, on the day twenty-seven years ago when I first walked in this church as a broke divinity student.” Lotte broke in to ask how his daughter, Faith, was doing; it turned out she was off taking a walk around the green with some guy named Smith. The old man went on with his story, telling us how the previous minister (and his daughter, clearly!) took a shine to him, and how he became his assistant and finally took over from him.
The story was just wrapping up when the daughter-of-the-preacher-man came around the back of the church with this Smith guy. She was delighted to see Lotte, and I have to say, I wasn’t sorry to see her, either — a sassy, pretty brunette…I can’t see getting bored around her, even in this hick town :P Her boyfriend (because that’s how Smith introduced himself straight off, “I’m her boyfriend”) was a bright guy, but quiet, and he wouldn’t join our conversation even though Lotte kept inviting him in. What really got to me, though, was that it was pretty clear from his expression that he was holding back out of sheer douchiness and dickishness, not because he didn’t have anything to say. This only got clearer as things went on; because when Faith went for a walk with Lotte and, I mean, I was there too, so yes, also with me, he’d been looking pretty grumpy already but he started looking furious, and Lotte had to pull me aside and tell me I was ‘being too flirty with Faith’. Now, nothing pisses me off more than when people bring each other down — I mean, especially now, when we’re young, we’re in the prime of life, do you really want to start moaning and spoiling the few good times we get to share? And by the time you realize what you’ve been wasting, it’s too late, you’ll never get it back. Eugh. This ate away at me all day, and when we got back to the church and all gathered in the refectory for a snack, and the conversation shifted to the ups and downs of life, I couldn’t help latching onto the subject and giving an impassioned little speech against negativity.
“We humans are always complaining,” I began, “that there are so few good times and so many bad times, but I think most of the time we’re wrong. If we were always open-hearted enough to enjoy the good that God offers us every day, we’d also be strong enough to take the bad when it comes.”
“But your moods aren’t up to you,” answered the minister’s wife, “they have so much to do with your body! If you’re not physically well, it’s hard to feel good about anything.”
I granted her that. “Okay,” I said, “so let’s think about it as a kind of illness; then we can ask, is there a cure for it?”
“Oh, definitely,” said Lotte, “at least, I think a lot of it is up to us. I know that’s true for me personally. When something’s bugging me and making me grumpy, I just jump up, sing a few fun songs walking up and down the garden, and then poof! it’s gone.”
“Exactly, that’s what I was trying to say,” I replied; “you shake off negativity just like you shake off laziness. Because actually, being negative is< a kind of laziness. It’s our default setting, but if you make yourself man up and tackle whatever you’re facing, you’ll find it wasn’t that much work in the first place, and it actually feels good to be productive.”
Faith was watching me intently. Her boyfriend countered that people don’t have full control over themselves, and least of all over their emotional responses. “But we’re talking about an unpleasant response here,” I answered, “something anyone would be happy to get rid of. And you never know what you can do until you try. I mean, if you were sick, you’d go around getting opinions from all the doctors you could find, and even if they recommended the most disgusting medicines or the most painful operations, you wouldn’t say no if that’s what it took for you to get healthy again like you want.”
I noticed that the dear old minister was straining to catch our words, so I raised my voice and turned to him, saying, “We preach against so many sins, but I’ve never heard anyone criticize negativity from the pulpit.”
“That’s one for the big-city preachers,” he said, “small-town folk are never in a bad mood. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt — and there might even be some lessons there for my wife, and the D.A., too.” We all laughed, and he laughed too, until he fell into a coughing fit, which put the conversation on hold for a while. Then the boyfriend turned to me and said, “You’re calling negativity a sin? That seems like a bit of an exaggeration.”
“Not at all,” I answered. “What else do you call something that hurts you and your neighbor? Isn’t it bad enough that we can’t make each other happy? Do we also have to rob each other of the little happiness we can each create for ourselves? I mean, have you ever seen someone full of negativity who was strong enough to hide it and carry it alone without destroying all the happiness around him? No, right? Because it’s this inner anxiety about our own unworthiness, this dissatisfaction with ourselves, that’s always bound up with some kind of envy, some kind of stupid jealousy. We see happy people, who are happy without our having anything to do with it, and it makes us miserable.”
Lotte was smiling — she could see how passionately I was speaking — and Faith was tearing up, which fired me up even more. “Shame on anyone,” I said, “who uses the power they have over someone else’s heart to rob them of the simple joy they have in being themself. All the presents and all the apologies in the world can’t make up for a moment of happiness-in-ourselves that someone else has ruined with their jealous self-doubt.”
I thought my heart would burst right then; so many memories came pressing in on me, and I started crying.
“Sometimes,” I cried out, “sometimes I wish everyone would just say to themself, every day, all you can do for your friends is let them enjoy what they enjoy and help that happiness grow by sharing it with them. Is there anything you can really do for them, when they’re being torn to pieces, shattered by pain?
“And — and when that last terrible sickness sets in on this person you’re making funeral plans for in the prime of their life, and you call the doctor in for the last time, and they lie there in their miserable powerlessness, their eyes staring sightlessly at the sky, the sweat of death pooling endlessly on their forehead, and you — you stand there beside the bed like a damned man, knowing to the core of your soul that there’s nothing you can do for them, not with all your money, and the agony seizes you deep inside that you would give everything just to grant that dying soul a drop of comfort, a speck of strength…”
And, saying this, my own memories of being in that position all came crashing down on me. I buried my face in my napkin and ran out of the room, and the only thing that finally shook me out of it was Lotte saying it was time to go.
And the way she teased me on the drive home, saying I got too worked up about everything, and that I’d hurt myself someday if I kept it up! that I needed to go easy on myself! — Oh, you angel! For your sake, I’ll try!