I grew up in a devoutly religious home. We went to church services twice a week. Religiously, as it were. When I was a little girl, I used to write Bible verses on a slip of paper and keep them in my pocket. Usually a verse from a favorite Psalm or Bible story, almost always including a promise of presence and power. Often these messages began with the angel’s command, “Fear not.” Even if I didn’t pull it out to read, the folded verse reminded me of divine presence, like tucking an angel in my back pocket.
Shortly after Sam’s death, we flew across the country for a family bar mitzvah. Sam was a Cuban Jew, and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but just trust me on this point. One of my cousins used to have a stand-up comedy routine she entitled “Jewbans.” Anyway, we flew to Little Havana (Miami) to join the celebration.
My cousin’s sister “Alexa” is a cancer survivor, a stunningly beautiful woman with the most amazing, gentle green eyes. Graced with strength, fortified by family, blessed with intellect and heart and humor, she is a princess warrior. She is one of those women whose power and gentleness emanate in equal parts. I had never met her before, and I found my place next to her, soaking up her energy and warmth. She didn’t speak much English, and I only speak a poquito de Spanish. But pain is a universal language, and suffering levels the playing field.
Several of us cousins stayed up late one night, folding programs, preparing party favors and name cards and centerpieces. We laughed and chattered — in a mix of Spanish and English — and eventually our work was done, but we kept up the conversation, softer voices, still hands. I didn’t sleep much in those days, and I was grateful for the female companionship in the late hours.
Alexa looked at me with her beautiful green cat eyes, and she saw me. She saw the confused and wounded little girl, tucked tight in a ball. She saw the grizzly bear mother, rising to her full height, roaring, claws outstretched, prepared to eviscerate any threat to her cubs. She saw the young mother bird, gently folding a chick under each wing and singing her little ones to sleep. And she saw my own inner princess warrior, a prayer in one hand and a sword in the other. Without judgement, and with recognition, she saw all of me. I curled up in her arms and wept.
It is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other — a place to be known and safe, a place where the frightened child and the fearsome warrior both reside.
Throughout the week, Alexa would offer me words of encouragement, mostly in Spanish. At the end of the week, she presented me with a single white 3×5 card: Yo puedo! No tengo miedo! Soy fuerte! Salgo adelante! Yo si puedo! SI! And on the opposite side, like the answer to a vocabulary flash card, in English: “Don’t forget: “I can!”
From the early stages of my process, I was determined not to get stuck in my grief. I still keep Alexa’s card in my wallet, not unlike the Bible verses I carried with me as a child, so that I will see her words and think of her eyes and remember: I can!
This morning I’m planning the route for my run. I am tired and busy and I don’t really want to run at all, not even with my trusty side-kick, the defective hunting dog. But my girlfriend has talked me into another half-marathon (um, yeah… more on that later), and according to the training schedule, I need five miles. I do not even want to go that far today.
I lace up my running shoes and head out anyway. I aim low. I might walk a few miles, but only to take the edge off the dog. After the first mile, I start to wonder whether I could hit the three-mile mark and yet avoid the construction that seems to be afflicting the local streets this week. All this makes me think about how Life’s construction zones sometimes block my intended path and send me in another direction. I have several friends for whom Life has recently thrown up a big DETOUR sign, which has forced them to stop, gather their strength and start again in a different direction. Several are facing really big things: cancer, career changes, marital issues, the death of a sibling, financial challenges, parents in declining health and crises of faith. And, of course, the adage is true: a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. Fathers too. My own least happy child is decidedly downcast, and I spend the first part of my run on the verge of tears.
I think of my friends, many of whom picked me up and dusted me off when Life threw me a curveball, knocking me to the dirt. The least I can do is to keep running, like a prayer in motion. I decide to run by one girlfriend’s house in particular, not necessarily to stop (although I would if she wanted me to), but more like an intentional prayer loop, holding her tangibly in my thoughts and heart. It will add an extra mile to my route, but that’s what friends do. And as an incentive, I intend to let myself walk the last mile home.
I don’t stop and knock at my friend’s door because I don’t want to interrupt. (Not to mention that I suspect she would prefer a “virtual hug” from her panting, sweaty friend.) But I do hesitate for a moment — even though I’m afraid I might not get moving again — in an expression of solidarity. Like the song says, “When you’ve got troubles, I’ve got troubles, too.” I hold her in my heart and inhale. I exhale encouraging thoughts in her direction.
Inhale, exhale, repeat. Another of my favorite mantras.
Yo puedo! (I can!)
I begin to move again, first walking, then running, mentally pushing myself with the same thoughts I directed toward my friend. As I approach the home stretch, I am still thinking about several friends and the challenges ahead.
No tengo miedo! (I am not afraid!)
I remember their strength, their faith, their capacity for love, forgiveness and humor. I am winded. I’ve now achieved the prescribed 5 miles and can completely justify walking the last hill. My legs are heavy.
Soy fuerte! (I am strong!)
But as I contemplate the pain, anger and fear facing some of my friends, I press on. These women and men propelled me along my own healing journey with their strength and positive energy, and they inspire me still. I aim to encourage them and offer support along theirs.
Salgo adelante! (I’m moving forward!)
It is not until the steep hill home that my own tears spill over, but this is the place real strength lies, where the wounded little girl and the princess warrior make their way. Because the fact of the matter is that vulnerability and humility often require more fortitude than climbing up a hill. The tears and the sweat run together in one salty mess. Which is why I recommend wearing sunglasses on a run.
Yo si puedo! SI! (Yes, I can! YES!)
I reach the top and smile.
Whether you call it prayer, intention or desire, I believe that there is power in the positive thoughts that we radiate toward our loved ones. In fact, I know this to be true because I have experienced time and again the lift that comes when friends hold me in their hearts.
That extra hill was for you, my friend.
!Si, yo puedo!”
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And words of encouragement.