My homework for the writers’ workshop this week was to answer the question, “What was the turning point when you decided to Choose Grace?” I knew the exact moment and told our instructor that I would be happy to answer the prompt she gave me. Two weeks and MANY tears later, I only scratched the surface of that question. As it turns out, there wasn’t one specific moment, but a collection of moments that took place during the time my step-father, John, went missing and then later when he was found.
Many of my friends will remember my obsession with the children’s book, Wonder, by RJ Palacio, shortly after I went through that experience. At the time, I spoke with friends near and far about our favorite characters, passages and quotes throughout the book, especially toward the end (but I won’t give those away as I still recommend this book for all ages!). What I couldn’t explain at the time was that the most moving passage for me, was the following:
Hey, is this seat taken?
I looked up, and a girl I never saw before was standing across from my table with a lunch tray full of food. She had long wavy brown hair, and wore a brown T-shirt with a purple peace sign on it.
Uh, no, I said.
She put her lunch tray on the table, plopped her backpack on the floor, and sat down across from me. She started to eat the mac and cheese on her plate…
My name is Summer, by the way. What’s yours?”
When I read these first few lines in the “The Summer Table” chapter, I started to weep.
Not just a few tears, but a real ugly cry. I wasn’t quite sure why I had had this strong of a reaction to these particular words. I certainly wasn’t a middle school student and I didn’t know anyone with a facial deformity, like the main character, August. Why, then, was I having such a strong reaction to these characters in this book?
Still sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden and anxiety-prone, I started reading Wonder just one month after my step-father’s body had been recovered off the coast of Key West. The memories that surfaced during his disappearance, the desperate search and then the recovery were brutal. All of the feelings that I had pushed away for my brother, Brian, who also went missing, who we also searched for, and then later found, resurfaced with a vengeance.
The pain of knowing that these two beautiful and gentle souls had lost hope was indescribable.
While sitting there weeping uncontrollably, I realized why the words from Wonder struck such a chord. Brian and John were just like August. While they may not have had the complex deformities that his character had, they were suffering in other ways. Brian and John’s injuries were invisible. They, just like August, felt completely isolated in their pain.
In fact, we are ALL like August at one point or another. We ALL have something.
And, we all have the capacity to be like Summer. We all have the ability to change the course of someone’s day, someone’s life, with just one simple act of kindness. Or, as I like to call it: grace.
When I really thought about Summer’s seemingly simple act during one of August’s lowest points in the story, it triggered a whole series of questions, thoughts and even more tears. From the more book-specific questions: Would I have gone to the aid of an outcast when I was a kid? Would my children be brave or decent enough to do this as well? To the more personal reflections: Did I reach out to Brian when he needed me most? Did I do enough to let him know he wasn’t alone? Could I have saved John by reaching out to him sooner? Did I miss signs that he was losing hope? To the more philosophical question: What does the world expect from me?
Losing John seventeen years after losing Brian, changed me forever. I literally shattered into a million little pieces when I figured out his location: a terrible, heart-wrenching phone call that I placed in the middle of the night to the Monroe County Coroner’s Office provided the answer I prayed so hard not to hear.
I am different now and I look at others differently now too. It’s almost as if I am looking through a camera with a “suffering” lens. There are so many people who are suffering…so many of us who are fighting every single day to escape the pain.
The whole scenario with this fictional character, Summer, and her ability to Choose Kind, to help someone she viewed as suffering, or as isolated, just for the sake of being nice or helping another person, spurred me on my mission even more.
When I started reading the book, it had only been three weeks since I had made my own pledge in front of about 150 mourners at John’s funeral. I pledged that despite the most unimaginable and hopeless outcome, I had decided to “Choose Grace”.
What did that mean? What is choosing grace? As I explained in the eulogy that I wrote for John, it meant that I was going to choose to find the beauty deep within an incredibly terrible situation. I was going to live life the way John lived his life when he was well – with rose-colored glasses, a beautiful optimism, an urge to help others and a gigantic, hearty laugh. I decided that while I have a choice, I was going to choose grace.
Before all of this happened, I was not what people would describe as the PollyAnna type. I had experienced a bunch of losses and had become quite cynical over the years, but what I experienced during those weeks of John’s disappearance, search and the weeks following his loss, made me gravitate towards the other side. The bright side. There are so many stories of people who stepped up to help me find John. Every time I called someone new, I told them about who John was and explained to them our family had gone through this before with filing a missing persons’ report, searching for our loved one, holding onto hope despite the odds that were stacking up against us. There were just so many stories of people who were willing to do anything to help us – from the guy who said he would post flyers in Key West after he got off his 8-hour shift, to the sheriff who said he would hand deliver the note I wrote to the man who found John’s body. He did this after I explained that I never got to thank the person who found my brother’s body along North Avenue Beach. He understood that I couldn’t let this go again.
Despite the terrible outcome, deep sadness and the stress this put on our already fractured family, I had hope. I had hope that I could be like Summer’s character. Hope that my children would also “choose kind” when given the choice. Hope that I could help other people, even if it was just one person, from feeling alone…from losing hope.
When you are thrown into a chaotic situation, and you feel like you are spiraling out of control and losing your mind, you never know where you’ll find peace and inspiration. For me, it was during an incredibly difficult time from a special book with an important message: “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”
To answer my instructor’s question, my turning point was my breaking point.