For chapter 3 click here.
The next morning I met the Shepherd at another of her favorite breakfast places. “I’m big into breakfast,” she said. “Not for any health reasons but just…I don’t know. It’s bacon!”
I must have furrowed my brow or curled my lip or something, because the Shepherd turned around and looked me square in the face while we waited to be seated. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
The matter was that the previous day’s experiences had completely wrecked me. I couldn’t get the kids out of my head. I couldn’t get the parents out of my head. We had gone in and left all in a day’s time. We were healthy and didn’t have any of that kind of worry or grief hanging over our heads. Those folks were living under that same grief and sadness today. Our visit had not changed their lives, but it had made a huge impact on me. I was puzzled…no, that’s not the right word. I was shocked and a little insulted that the Shepherd was here talking jovially about bacon. How did I express this without coming off as a total bitch? Then again, maybe she needed to hear it.
“You think I was not impacted by our visit yesterday,” she said, looking still into my face. I had not said a word. “You think it’s disgraceful that I am standing here being happy about breakfast after what we saw yesterday.”
I was about to confirm her belief when the hostess came over to seat us. As fate would have it, we once again got a table by a window. After we ordered our coffees, the Shepherd cleared her throat. “Well,” she started. “Was I right? I was, wasn’t I? You think I’m some kind of callous asshole right now, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I tried to stay as calmly as possible. “I just, I don’t know. I feel like 500 people have died, and you seem to be your normal self. I guess I wonder who is the real you, the person who was so compassionate yesterday or this person I’m sitting with now.”
“Ah,” the Shepherd said, making a steeple out of her fingers. “Let me tell you a story, if I may.”
I nodded. What was I going to say, no?
“Hang on, let’s order first,” she said, as she nodded in the direction of the waitress. I had no idea what I wanted.
“I’ll have one of my specials, and get her the same thing, please,” the Shepherd said. The waitress nodded, wrote down some notes, and left.
“Just what am I going to be eating?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll love it. It’s an omelette with spinach, tomato, mushrooms, and bacon. It’s divine. Anyway, now to my story.”
I took a sip of coffee. This woman had a lot of audacity. Ordering for me now was she? Interesting. Very interesting.
“When I was 14, I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure. I had started having periods, then they stopped, and after much testing, that was the decision. Even though I was only 14, I was crushed completely. I had already assumed I would be having kids. I had my first boy name and my first girl name picked out. Obviously I had no husband or serious plans at the time, but I had just taken it for granted that this would occur.”
I put my coffee cup down very carefully to make sure my hand wouldn’t shake. I had been diagnosed with the same thing, but I had had a husband at the time, and I was 25. How could she talk about this diagnosis in such a nonchalant way?
“For many years I simply ran away from this reality, and I had the luxury to. I was just a kid. But when I was in my twenties I had to finally face my demons. I went to a new doctor and the first thing she said to me was, ‘You will never have children that are genetically yours.’ It seemed so easy for her to say. I thought maybe I had heard wrong, but of course I knew I had heard just fine. She gave me a recommendation – an online forum I could visit and at least read. I did start reading, and then I felt compelled to talk to one of the women on there. I don’t know why I reached out to her specifically. I just had a feeling that we would mesh well, I guess.”
I nodded. I had been on similar forums and knew how that went. Did she know that?
“After talking to this woman for a few months, I saw a post from her in the public forum. I’d been talking to her in private only, via emails. She and her husband had gotten their adoption to go through and they had a 2-year-old now. She started posting pictures of the new addition to her life, and started emailing me pictures as well.”
“I hate when people do things like that,” I interrupted. “They can be so insensitive.” I was of course also still referring to her.
The Shepherd, acknowledging my attempt at an insult, carried on.
“For a long time I felt, as you do, that she was being callous and insensitive. But I no longer think that was the case. I think she knew that I would understand, and that the community would understand, her height of happiness. We had all suffered the same thing. She had found a way out. Who would not rejoice for her more?”
I wriggled uncomfortably in my seat. I was not convinced and I did not see how this was an explanation of her very recent insensitive (to me) behavior.
“The thing is,” said the Shepherd, “when I see these parents and these children I feel their pain. I feel their worry and their grief. They give all of that to me when I see them. In order to survive, in order to do what I do, I need to be able to come away from those meetings and offer out into the universe the following thoughts: Please please please help these people, and my GOD I am so LUCKY not to be in that situation right now.
Instead of letting the pain of these people envelope me, I look around at my life. I look in the mirror and see a healthy woman’s face unmarked by tears of grief and worry for a child. That is a reason to celebrate. My celebration does not mean I do not still feel empathy for those people, just as the woman I met in the forum still had plenty of sympathy for me even as her situation improved. She wanted me to see, I think, that hope is worthwhile, that happiness is possible. I want to show these people that there is still light even though they are living under clouds. If I become embroiled in the sadness I won’t be able to help anyone. So yes, yesterday I was with those parents and those children. I was able to leave and I am here at one of my favorite places getting ready to eat one of my favorite things. Hot damn, my life is great. I’d be a fool not to appreciate it after a day like yesterday.”
“But how do you get those stories out of your head?” I stammered. “These people poured their hearts out to you and you what, you just move on?”
The waitress brought out our food. The Shepherd smiled at me and then at the waitress and assured her we didn’t need anything else right now. Exit waitress, stage left.
“If I was expecting something from the people I help, it would be much more difficult to move on. I’d be waiting for the transaction to be completed. I gave them something, now what do I get? So I need to keep in touch. I need to keep wondering about them. The fact is that I do not need anything from them. I gave them, I hope, a small gift. I told them it was alright to be sad, scared, upset, anxious, worried, and everything else they are, and I told them to truly enjoy every good moment they have. If they need me, they will contact me, but most of the time people just need that little boost every once in awhile, and then they can cope again. That little spark can keep them warm for a long time, honey.”
“So you’re saying I can’t get them out of my head because I’m wanting something from them? No offense but that’s total bullshit. First of all I didn’t do anything for them, and second of all I do not in fact want a damned thing from them. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
That came out more harshly than I had actually intended as the echo of my voice reverberated in my head, but at the time I actually didn’t regret it. The Shepherd took a couple of bites of her omelette. She had a troubled look on her face now and I wondered if I had offended her.
“You do want something,” she said. “Whenever we see someone in pain, we want something. We want to fix what is ailing them so we don’t have to think about them being upset anymore. If we help them we want their gratitude. If we witness, we want to know that we are also witnessed. You have to dig deep into your heart and soul to find those wants, because they lurk in the depths. And then just like pearls you need to dig those wants out and give to people with nothing but your love in that moment. Imagine a cup filled with coffee, and it’s overflowing. You don’t put the spilled coffee back into your cup. You put it somewhere else. Our hearts are like that, and with the love that overflows we can reach out to others. We can disperse that overflow to people who are running low. Once they are filled up a bit our job is done. That’s it. Time to move on to the next person who needs a little fill-up.”
I still was not convinced. “These people confided in you as if you were a long lost friend or family member,” I pressed. “And you are just pushing them out of your head.”
The Shepherd sighed. “It doesn’t matter who I am, honey. It’s about what I bring. What I bring is a little light to dark places, love where it’s needed, and hope where it is sparse. I could be anyone. It doesn’t matter who I am. What I bring is what makes people connect with me, and it is only as we exchange what I bring between us that I matter to them.”
“I just don’t buy it,” I said, again a bit more harshly than I probably should have.
The Shepherd smiled. “I know, she said. “But I have every confidence that you will, hook, line and sinker.”