Mom seemed uncharacteristically down on the phone. Her typically vivacious tone was flat, sorrowful. After I hung up, I felt guilty for not asking what was wrong. I stopped by the house after work and found her in her robe, working at the kitchen table.
“Hey Jenno, I didn’t expect to see you!” Her swollen eyes sparkled.
“Bad day. One of my friends from work died today. I’m just really down, I decided to work from home.”
“Oh no, who?” I said, moving closer.
“I don’t know if you knew him, he was one of our custodians. Such a nice guy.”
I knew exactly who she was talking about. I remembered how he beamed when Mom greeted him in the hallway and introduced him to me. I remember thinking how friendly he seemed, how broadly he smiled as Mom showered him with praise.
“He was a great guy.”
I have always known that she is a “people person,” an extrovert who thrives on reaching out to others. But it wasn’t until today that I realized how profoundly she allows her life to be altered by every individual who enters it— friends, colleagues, strangers. This is her most amazing gift, the courage to open herself up, to give her all — to allow herself to become invested, no matter who the person or what the situation.
If I were to ask anyone in a 50- mile radius of the city of Hopkins to describe her, they would undoubtedly mention her work in the community, the hours she has put in organizing, feeding, listening, fundraising. The capacity for recognizing a need in another human being and acting to fill it, always with respect, is one of the most beautiful qualities a person can have. A talent for organizing — no, for inspiring others to take action — is rarer.
The ability to empathize, to intellectually and emotionally go beyond the philanthropic act and put oneself in the position of the person to whom one is reaching out (whether that person is standing inches or miles away) — to allow the experience to change oneself on a fundamental level— is present in one in a million.
Imagine my surprise today when I discovered I had won the lottery. In her infinite wisdom, Mom never talked to me about empathy during my childhood (except maybe once while helping me study for a vocabulary test). She modeled it, day after day, with everyone she met. In my foolishness, I always thought she was “volunteering” and “helping people.” It is so much more than that.
She is touching lives and allowing herself to be transformed in the process.