Sometimes a seemingly insignificant encounter leaves me oddly unsettled. For days afterwards, some nugget of feeling that it provokes still echoes around inside, as if it has some sharp edges that prevent it from settling within.
The other day as my wife, my daughter, and I walked out of a building, I heard my wife say hello to someone who was approaching us. When I looked at the women I quickly realized this wasn’t anyone I knew, and as I stopped to give them time to chat I became engrossed in something unusual that was happening at the same time.
The women had a small girl with her, and as the woman and my wife started talking, the little girl approached my daughter. And continued to approach. She was small, and a lot younger than my daughter, and she kept on approaching until her face was just a few inches from my daughter’s chest.
For an instant – just an instant - I was bemused inside, remembering the Seinfeld “close talker” episode about the unspoken social boundaries we maintain. But for just an instant, because then an extraordinary series of sharp, stabbing realizations took place.
The little girl was the woman’s daughter.
As she began to look up and speak to my daughter, I could tell from the sound of her voice and the odd shape of her teeth that she was suffering from some disability.
I felt an inner wave of sympathy for her mother, the frightening “there but for the grace of God” realization that all my happiness is contingent on the well-being of my children, and how fragile that well-being is.
I realize I’m staring at the little girl, and I know I should look away. I should not stare.
But I could not take my eyes off the little girl. There was such a hunger in her close approach to my daughter, and when she looked up at my daughters face I saw such an unmixed delight in the simple experience of talking to another. And seeing another. No, I could not look away, because when she started to smile up at my daughter it was like a sunburst. She was not suffering. No one who smiles like that, no one who speaks with such joy can be said to be suffering.
Later on I asked my wife about her, and I got the details. She’s going blind and she will die, and so I had a story that I could hang my feelings on. There was a reason for the sadness and fear that I felt. But I had no story that explained the other feeling - the feeling that I had witnessed some earthly manifestation of God’s transcendent light in her little smile.
My eyes will not see forever, and I will die someday. She didn’t know my daughter, yet she took such joy in finding my daughter’s face in the fading light of the world. I know my daughter, and I’m ashamed that familiarity has dulled the wondrous sight of her in my eyes.
Someday my light too will fade. Someday my eyes too will struggle to find my daughter’s face within the growing darkness. Let there be light.