When I moved to Missouri in 2003, I was shaken and disoriented. It felt like I had been in a prolonged period of free fall, and Missouri is where I finally hit the ground. It knocked the breath out of me.
In that sleepy town on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, I felt loneliness and sadness and confusion with blinding clarity. It was as though every nerve had migrated to the surface of my skin, and even the pressure of the humid air was painful.
Of course, I didn’t really let any of that on to the people I met. At work I was bright and cheerful, bringing in bundt cakes and pies to share–to win everyone ever. At church I smiled and was interesting, jumping immediately into serving in the children’s ministry.
But at home, in that quiet little townhome on Stardust Drive that I shared with two new roommates, I couldn’t always keep my mask from slipping. It was a season of crisis, of deathss and car accidents and sickness, all happening to family and friends in Virginia. The 900 miles between my family and me might as well have been a million. More than once the roommate whose room was next to mine slipped into my dark room and held my hand while I sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” I choked through the tears. She just nodded.
One day that roommate came home and told me she had a surprise for me. She was always up for an adventure, a trip to a darkened, supposedly haunted theatre, a late-night drive looking for the northern lights. Even her car was exciting, a low-slung yellow sporty thing that made me smile in spite of myself.
She grinned as she drove, and I fiddled with the air conditioning vent, hoping I could pull some excitement up past the sadness. She drove through a drive-thru and got us both ice cream. I licked a sticky blot of vanilla off of my wrist as she drove down St. Mary’s Avenue. Where was she taking us? We turned onto Bird street and passed blocks of worn, dingy houses. Mark Twain Elementary was quiet, the lawn patchy and dry. And then she pulled over, rolled down the windows and turned off the car. I looked around.
There was nothing here.
At first I was annoyed. I could still be sitting in my room feeling sorry for myself. But her wide smile told me I was missing something. Finally she pointed out of the window to the green street sign directly in front of the car.
“This is as close as I could get to taking you to Virginia,” she said. Her smile softened. Hopeful.
I dipped my face down, could smell the sweet vanilla from the half-melted ice cream in my hands.
This was the nicest thing anybody had ever done for me.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. She smiled, turned on the radio, and we sat in silence and ate our ice cream, a whispery breeze carrying the scene of fresh cut grass through the car.
I left Missouri seven years ago, but I still remember the kindness of that roommate. She saw my brokenness and pain, and instead of shielding herself from it, she walked into it. She took me home the only way she knew how.
I am reminded of her when I see people in my life who are sad and lonely and hiding. I think of her when I must make the choice. Do I turn my back?
Or do I go to Virginia Street with them?