Today we use the term 'empath' to describe a kid like me.
I never much enjoyed it, my radar for others' emotional pain. I ended up deliberately structuring my life to involve a small but close set of acquaintances and friends, and by and large this strategy has limited the number of times I fall apart. Also, I choose to invest my energy mostly in the daily obligations of life as a parent, spouse, and co-worker. When I feel myself getting pulled into another person's emotional life, I take one step back. Please understand: I am not a bad friend. One step is not very far, but it seems enough to preserve my well-being.
I had planned to be a therapist, and I would have made a damn fine one, it's true. (Does this show of confidence make me seem boastful? I've committed to being honest here.) But even early in my training I understood, with some shame and more regret, that I would never be able to leave clients' woes in the office, where at the end of the day they surely belonged. So I chose differently, and I have not often been sorry.
All this is to say that I haven't felt truly overwhelmed in a long time.
Until this week. The details are trivial in and of themselves. It was their timely conspiring that felled me. And so I found myself parking my car in the lot of a grocery store where I'd intended to shop and sobbing noisily into the steering wheel. The ugly cry that Claire Danes has perfected in the TV series Homeland, you know the one: hiccuping breaths, squinchy eyes, puffy red cheeks, snotty nose. A look even less pleasing on an adult than it is on a child. A woman settled herself into the car facing mine, and her gaze met mine, briefly. She smiled, not unsympathetically, and I was grateful, both for the flash of understanding I saw there and for her seeming respect for my privacy.
I called my husband, and I was blubbering, but he listened, and said the right things (things that reminded me: We have known each other for over twenty years, and those two decades, they do matter), and offered to do the right things, and there I was, grateful again, both to be known, really known, and to have a number I can call when I fall apart. More than one number, in fact: how lucky am I! My thumb, my baby quilt, my bedroom closet: two of these are lost to me, and the other is not the comfort object it once was. But at the other end of the line, a person who gets me, and in spite of all the petty grievances is willing to catch me should I stumble. When you think about it, isn't that why we marry?
And so what I am grateful for, on this Thanksgiving, is that I am known, through periods of strength and frailty, and that my partner does not turn away but towards.
With that comes my wish that you might feel the same about a person in your life, someone who will gather up your pieces and sew you whole again, no matter how crooked the seam. And if there's no such person, may there be a stranger in another car, observing you not with indifference but with love. An empath. Yes, may there be an empath.