I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.
Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life.
In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.
Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.
The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.
As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.
Here in America, we are privileged.
Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.
The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.
“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”
This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.
Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.
“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”
Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.
We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.
My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.
When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.
I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.
As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.
Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.
If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.
Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.