It was late morning on Easter Sunday. I rang the bell at an acquaintance’s house and waited. There wasn’t much movement inside, making me wonder if the people in the house had not returned from the mass yet. I rang again. It took a while to be answered.
‘Who is it?’ It was the full-time maid, Lincy’s voice. I replied. She had joined the family only recently, but knew me well.
‘Happy Easter,’ I said happily, as soon as she opened the door. She greeted me back, with a mild smile that didn’t quite reach the corner of her eyes. There was something missing in it, but I don’t make much of it at that time.
‘No one in the house?’ I asked, noticing the calm behind her. It was clear that there was no one in the house.
‘Yes, there are. I had a son. He passed away a year ago. He was the sole earning member in my family. He used to take care of the whole family. I have a daughter and a grandchild. Exactly a year after my son died, my son-in-law abandoned my daughter, and married someone else. She and her child are now with my husband. That’s why I am here doing this job. Why do all misfortunes come together?’ Her voice broke into shards of pain.
I stood gasping, watching the middle aged woman begin to sob and give details. The quietness in the house from where she had emerged seemed to deepen and assume a sinister quality. ‘No, Lincy, you must not cry on a good day like this,’ I said, lowering my voice deliberately to soothe her rising anguish.
‘There is no good day in my life. No Christmas, no Easter. I have only this sorrow. I can’t even weep here openly. I do it when I go out to dump the garbage every day.’
I felt a lump in my throat. I am a mushy, emotional thing. It takes very little for me to feel the sting in the eyes. People’s sad stories can rob my sleep. It can throw me off balance.
Empathy, at times, can be severely punishing. It can make one feel utterly helpless and incapacitated. And on occasions, it makes us adopt their pain. It can be very debilitating. But that cannot take away from our responsibility to offer succour to those who need it, can it? But then, what does one say to a woman who is telling a life tale of such acute distress?
Every pain is extreme and unparalleled for the person enduring it. The cruelest thing one can do towards them is to philosophize and undermine their feelings. A lesser evil is to compare it to other people’s dire conditions in an attempt to assuage this person. The ‘you are better off than millions of others’ maxim that trivializes her woes.
So I cut all the crap and said with the deepest sympathies that I was capable of expressing in that moment, ‘I understand your pain.’ I put my right arm out in an attempt to give her a gentle hug.
‘Oh, I am sweating, and will be smelling,’ she said, trying to avoid my embrace and wiping her tear-streaked face on her sleeve.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, and gave her a hug. I caught a faint smell of raw fish on her. It was probably the closest witness to her story. I heard her whimper on my shoulder and fought to hold my tears back. I had no means to mitigate her pain. All I had was a sparing expression, ‘I understand.’
But that seemed enough to her. A minute later, she gave me a smile, held my hand gratefully and said, ‘Thank you. Please pray for me.’
I promised her I would. As I began to walk away, she called out from behind, ‘Don’t tell these people about it. I haven’t told them anything.’
It was shattering to think that she was spending her days without giving the people she worked for (and lived with) a hint of what she was suffering silently. I didn’t seek explanations for it.
Later that day, when I heard of the bombings in Sri Lanka, I added several anonymous people in my prayer along with Lincy. I wished I could tell each of them, ‘I can’t change the situation, but I understand your sorrow. I do.’
My words would have travelled and touched their lives in ways unknown surely?