People watching: the daydreaming it gives birth to is a great pastime, as one comes up with imaginary back-stories for him in the mustard trews with a Harris tweed waistcoat, or the older lady in a belted kimono with chunky amber clipped round her neck. The older I get, though, the more I realise that the truth is often more interesting than fiction and that the tallest tale might not hold a candle to someone’s real life story. There are many happy stories, for sure, but the happy stories are not borne, they are not carried – instead, they carry you. The happy stories buoy us up and help support the weight of the other episodes that are carried less lightly through life’s journey. Be sure of it, each person carries an invisible load: sometimes unshared, or maybe shared with just a few. Sometimes, you might have the privilege of a stranger sharing his or her load with you, or you might let them carry yours for a while. Like I did, a couple of years ago, in a small village in County Donegal. I was drinking tea on a summer’s day outside a hotel, when an old man sat down beside me on the bench. He told me he had lived as an alcoholic for 30 years in London and lost contact with all of his family. He had long since stopped drinking but had never found a way back to his family – nor they to him. Told me he spent most of his time alone, reading Steinbeck (he had read every book; ‘The Red Pony’ was his favourite), watching the birds in his garden, and going to mass for the singing. “I have long since stopped believing in God”, he told me, “but I go to mass to sing, and for a sense of community. I like the garden, but it’s too much for me, so I have turned it over to God to take care of. It’s more of a natural meadow now.” “I thought you just told me that you didn’t believe in God”, I challenged him gently with raise of my brow. “I’m just checking you’re listening to an old man”, he said, smiling back at me. I got another cup from inside the hotel, he stayed for a while and we shared the pot of tea. I told him about my invisible load. “I’m sorry. You’re young for that,” was all he said, words simple and genuine. And he took his leave, and, along with him, his invisible load. And that was our shared moment, not to be had again. As he stepped away from me I thought of, and better understood, the old Irish song, She Moved Through The Fair: ‘for one has a sorrow that never is said.’
Within weeks, I had another encounter – the same but different. This time, I was in a café in a city suburb. With a straightforward, ‘do you mind if I sit here?’ a stranger and I got talking. He told me about his two lost sons – lost to him 30 years ago as toddlers when his wife took them to Canada to start a new life. He didn’t have the money to chase them, in those days there mustn’t have been the law to fall back on. It’s the sort of thing you think can’t possibly happen, but it did to him. One son, now 33, had just traced him through Facebook and was coming back to see him in the autumn. He cried as he told me. He said the only other person he had told his story to was a Vodaphone cold caller who was trying to sell him a mobile phone upgrade. Keeping his life-altering story to himself for so long made it all the more unbearable for me. I hoped the story had a happy ending. I will never know. Another normal person, another invisible load.
W.B. Yeats said, “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” (from the poem, ‘Easter 1916’). He’s one of the last people I would wish to debate with, but, as he’s no longer around, I going to take a firm stance and disagree. I think that too long a sacrifice can make one more understanding, compassionate, empathetic. I think it can make one caring and gentle and slow to judge. It is often those who have had to withstand great adversity, over long periods, who best understand ‘the other’. Be kind, just because you can’t see the invisible load doesn’t mean the person next to you isn’t carrying one, even if they are smiling.
‘I measure every Grief I meet’, by Emily Dickinson
‘I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –
I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –