The first time it happened I was twenty-three and living in Detroit. I’m at a party. Someone drones on about a Gordon Lightfoot album; someone asks when the pizza is coming; someone sails a paper plate across the room. I’m four months pregnant with my second child, staking claim to the corner of my host’s ugly plaid couch, legs pleated beneath me, rubbing my belly as if it were a crystal ball. Three hours ago, I learn my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter has a congenital kidney disease that requires extensive surgery in six days. I’m in a world not quite my own.
Julie runs to me from across the room and climbs into my lap. “Squeeze my guts out, Mommy,” she says. So, I do. Out of the blue, a curly-haired, Gordon Lightfoot-loving guy in a plaid flannel shirt sits down next to us on the couch and begins a conversation with Julie by asking her a riddle. She’s a smarty pants, that girl, even at two-and-a-half. She responds with the certainty of someone who is the smartest person in the room. They proceed in this manner on a first name basis for ten minutes: Jerry and Julie, “J and J,” she says. It’s love at first sight for them both.
The pizza arrives. Julie slips off the couch and makes a beeline for her share. Jerry comments on her intelligence. I say, “Miss Molly’s is a great preschool.” He laughs, a fine-tuned, full-hearted laugh. My eyes fill with tears, and I promptly spill the beans that have been stewing in my gut all afternoon regarding Julie’s prognosis. He is, like his laugh, very open and generous.
Six days later, he walks into the surgical waiting room at Children’s Hospital and plunks down next to me. He comes to the hospital every day thereafter, then to our house until Julie feels better. Three weeks later, he moves to Minnesota, and we never see him again.
Thirty years later, in Southern California, I sit in a paper dressing gown listening to the neurologist my attorney insisted I see tell me the scans and “grams” he ordered indicate I have a traumatic brain injury. There was this car accident. She runs a red light; I ricochet off three other cars in the intersection. I never saw her coming.
I know something is in absentia. My peripheral vision, my short-term memory and word recall, my ability to find my way home and string a sentence together are rather nonexistent. My family says, “You’ll be fine,” a hoped-for response to circumstances beyond their medical purview.
The doctor proceeds to fill in my blanks. I turn to him, meet his eyes, and smile to assuage the silence. He looks back at me—really looks at ME—and somehow, out of the blue, just beneath the hissing and hot wire-splitting occurring in my brain, I know he sees who I really am. That he can know me like this, in these circumstances, sets a course that convinces me things will work themselves out and shepherds my healing for the rest of my life. Michael, like Jerry before him, is fully present to my must need.
It’s five years later. I’m closeted in a phone booth near the campus of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Julie is in kidney failure; her once unborn, now unwavering baby sister has a tight rein on the who-will-be-a-donor issue having just become the swing vote in Hopkin’s acceptance of Julie as a transplant patient. “Thelma” is designated as the kidney Janey gives to Julie; “Louise“ is the kidney that stays with Jane.
We move to Baltimore for months of pre-and post-op care. We raise a lot of money to pay 20% of the costs for an experimental transplant, impossible back in the day when Julie and I sat on that ugly couch with Jerry. Hundreds of loving family members and friends—the “Known Ones”—make up the village we need to pull this off. Julie becomes stronger than strong. Janey, too. They are a class act.
Out of the blue, Sarah–the administrative support for a woman I recently interviewed—declares herself “the-person-I-can-say-anything-to.” We’ve talked on the phone maybe ten times. That’s it. Something about our relative anonymity and—for reasons I cannot now recall—that our conversations always occur in a phone booth, make it easy to tell Sarah things I cannot say to anyone I’ve loved for years.
We keep in touch after the transplant. I take her to lunch several years later when we discover we both live in Berkeley. That’s it. She is, however, as present to me now as I write these words as she was then. Like Jerry. Like Michael. They are three of the “Out of the Blue Ones”—my cadre of “previously unknowns “who unexpectedly come to me—without any agenda of their own—in my hour of need.
When I was a child, I somehow came to believe that who or what we all really are is a harmonious stream, a medley, of fast-moving, brilliant streaks of bright white light that shoot through the universe in the darkest dark of night. We sometimes run parallel to other streaks. We sometimes intersect. Sometimes we merge and become more robust. Sometimes we disperse. We are drawn together when we hear each other’s song, when we feel each other’s need. We intersect when we can be of good use to another, when we have something specific to give or receive from another. It is a purposeful, well-orchestrated patterning, not the random sequencing it appears at first glance. I think I was onto something when this belief first felt true.
On the heels of Texas and Ukraine, in the wake of the Covid uptick and roiling interest rates and escalating cost of groceries and gas, it’s hard to get quiet enough, energized enough, unencumbered enough to become your own gorgeous version of Jerry-Michael-Sarah to another. This is not something you do at the expense of yourself. Or to feel worthy. It’s not something that pushes or drives you. Being on either the giving or receiving or the end of this Light Brigade evokes a sense of wonder and goodness within you that makes you grateful, that energizes you and restores you, that makes you and the other remember you are both brilliant streaks of bright white light.
Consider the possibility.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
Available wherever fine books are sold.