“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” ~ Naomi Shihab Nye

When my husband was freshly dead, I felt as if I had been cut open for surgery and my veins and arteries cauterized so that I wouldn’t bleed all over the pavement leading from my car to the store or on the carpet at the bank or on the trail through the park. Like a gaping wound in my solar plexus lay hidden beneath my clothes.

Walking down the street, I’d think, Nobody knows. Nobody knows that my husband just died. I look like any other ordinary person going about business. They can’t see the hole. And I’d wonder how many others I would pass or stand next to that carried their own hole? I moved in a hyper-conscious awareness, as though I were a spirit who had crossed over myself, one who had the ability to see auras around bodies, feel pain and suffering between the veiled cloth of dimensions. I felt a softness, ripe and bruised as a purple plum. Yet, others couldn’t see the rawness of my insides.

Some would say stupid, hurtful things.

 “You’ll marry again.”

“He’s in a better place.”

“It’s okay; you’ll get over it soon.”

The opposite of kindness.

Later, when the hole had begun to grow a layer of scarring over itself, delicate as the lattice webbing of membranes that make up a dragonfly’s wing, I pushed my cart up to the checkout stand at Trader Joe’s. The checker, a thin young man with short black hair, about twenty-one years old, asked me how I was doing. It’s the kind of small talk one makes to the endless stream of people passing through a checkout line.

“All right,” I said, a bit curt, without a smile.

“Just all right?” he said.

“Yes, just all right.”

“Not good? Not great?” he pushed.

The place in my body that housed the hole tensed. I said, “Okay, because you’re pushing me for an answer, I’m going to tell you what I wouldn’t normally. My husband died last year and it is almost the anniversary. So, no, I’m not good or great. I’m all right.”

I expected him to react the way most people do when confronted by the awkwardness of grief. I expected him to say something basic like “I’m sorry for your loss” and turn his body away, avoiding eye contact.

Instead, he stopped what he was doing and looked directly into my eyes and said, “That must be very hard for you.”

The hustle and bustle of the store fell away. There was a low hum in my ear. My vision narrowed as if looking through a swirling kaleidoscope to the center at the end of the tube. I focused on his dark eyes. Watery pools of compassion, empathy. The tightness around my hole relaxed.

“What was his name?” he asked.

“Steve,” I said.

“What day is the anniversary?”

Slow. He moved slow with his words. Careful.

“April 5th,” I said.

He nodded solemnly and asked, “What is your name?” When I told him, he reached out and tenderly took my hand. He said, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Laurie.” He did not turn away. His gaze penetrated mine, and I felt bathed in deep, abiding kindness.

And I wondered at the ability of this young man to do what so many in my life could not. Did he have his own hole? Had he witnessed the gaping wound and recovery of someone else’s?

The older man who had begun bagging my groceries but disappeared during this exchange, returned carrying a bouquet of flowers. He handed me the bouquet. “Can I help you to your car?” he asked.

I never accept these offers. I am too proud, too independent. I glanced at his nametag. It read: “Steve.”

This time, I said, “Yes.”

Laurie Easter’s essay collection All the Leavings debuts October 15 from Oregon State University Press. Her essays have appeared in The RumpusPithead Chapel, and Under the Gum Tree, among others, and anthologized in The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. To learn more, visit laurieeaster.com

Photo by Amy Selwyn