The Gift of Empathy

healhands

My cousin Theresa was sitting on a floor with sheets of paper around her to form a circle for a project in her Master’s program of Occupational Development at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio.  Each sheet of paper had the name of someone of significance to her and she was supposed to write something about each person on the paper.  I was one of them and when she began to think of what to write about me, instead of putting artist, writer, good cook, any of the things most people who knew me would think of as a description, the word Healer came to her and she was so surprised, she called me later that evening to share that with me.

Thinking back to why that may have come to her, I began to remember thingsthat happened in my past that may have been the building blocks of empathy in my life.  From my Roman Catholic religion, I learned early on that suffering makes one deeper and more compassionate toward others who are struggling.

One early memory is of a photograph my mother kept in our kitchen of my sister and I sitting together.  Joanne, about 18 months old was pouting intensely, clearly quite angry and I, going on 4 years old, pressed right up against her side, had wide frightened eyes and a straight line mouth.

During our family trip to Europe I was still 16 and Joanne was 14 and for some reason the four of us, my sister and I and our parents stood alone in a room in the home of our cousins in France and while I have no recollection of what my sister said, I shall never forget that my father slapped her across the face.  The sound was like a clap of unexpected thunder, and I immediately dissolved in tears and sobs.

As a child who was raised to be seen and not heard, I was quiet and well-behaved.  As an adult in a writing group, I was amazed that people wanted to know how I felt about things.    One of my schoolgirl friends used to say I had the gallows smile, the smile I had to produce whether I felt like smiling or not, because my father always complained that I had a “long face” – the opposite of a happy face.  Later I had a boss who said he was telling me in advance that the company was having a major layoff and people would drop around me like flies, and he could tell me because he wanted me to react the way I always did, by not reacting.  That was news to me.  I always waited for the other foot to fall before I spoke or acted, I thought.

My own children were not at all suppressed, and my father used to get annoyed that I felt it necessary to explain things to them when his own responses would have been to deliver swats or smacks as he did when Joanne and I were children.  It is only now that I understand that Mika lives as an artist and a skateboarder in Oregon, and Alexander is a social justice activist; Because of the rigidity of my childhood, theirs was free of intense restraints.

Sometimes I remember Mary Egan, a young woman I worked with at a software house in California, who was heartbroken over a boyfriend who dumped her.  Mary who told me when she tried to hide behind my short squat person in a playful dodging of another co-worker that she was five foot thirteen; Mary who looked like Katherine Hepburn when she was all dressed up for a ball, Mary who was very athletic and on a rowing team.  She stood there weeping and saying he had come around because he missed her family, he wanted to be friends with them, but not to take up with her again, and she thought she was a wimp and said that she guessed that should be okay and I said, “No, Mary, it is not okay for him to do that.  It is a package deal.  You were just beginning to heal, you were laughing again, you were dating again, he has no right to do that.  Put your phone on do not disturb and splash some cool water on your eyes.”

When I left the company to bring my children closer to the family, Mary said “I just want you to know, you made a difference in my life.”   I’ve kept those words in a special place where the kindest things people have said to me live.

“Healer” my cousin Theresa had called me, “healer.”

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