“Life is better when you open your heart
You don't always have to act so hard
Just be as you are.”
–Mike Posner, Be As You Are
*name has been changed
“I had a terrible dream last night,” I told my 10-year-old daughter Avery on a recent Saturday morning. “I dreamed Annie* passed away.”
Annie is a seventy-nine-year-old old woman we met at a retirement home last spring when Avery played her guitar in a music therapy session. Upon learning Annie had not had a visitor in years, Avery asked if we could “adopt” her. We’d been visiting Annie for several months now.
The news of my terrible dream caused Avery to abruptly cease her morning waffle-savoring process. She knew “bad dream” for me meant vivid images, tearing-from-your-bed panic, real tears, and racing heartrate. Avery knew my nightly dreams were more intense than my everyday reality.
“Well,” Avery said, her face softening. “We better go see her, Mama.”
It did not surprise me Avery knew exactly what I needed her to hear.
On the way to the nursing home, we contemplated what Annie’s disposition would be. Normally bright and cheery, there had been that one troubling time when Annie was hostile, agitated, and barely recognizable. Last time that happened, I’d almost suggested we come back later. Before I could, Avery kneeled down in front of Annie’s wheelchair and said, “Do you want us to take you outside?”
Instead of giving us another angry “what do you want!?!” Annie whispered, “Okay.”
I hoped Annie would be cheerful and awake this time. But if she wasn’t, I would follow Avery’s lead. She seemed to know what was needed in such situations.
When my daughter and I stepped off the elevator onto Annie’s floor, we were met by the typical mid-afternoon scene at the nursing home. Lined up in wheelchairs along the hall were fragile residents slumped over like well-loved dolls. As we walked towards Annie’s room, shaky hands reached out to us. “Stop and talk to me,” their faces pleaded. We greeted each resident who was awake. Avery smiled brightly despite incoherent sentences and long-winded responses to the question: “How are you today?”
At the end of Wheelchair Row was Annie. Dressed in her favorite color, Annie slept peacefully in pink.
“I think we should wake her,” Avery said. Noticing my apprehension, she added, “She would not want to miss our visit.”
“Annie,” I said softly. “It’s your friends, Rachel and Avery.”
Annie woke up with a smile. “Why, hello!” It was as if she had been expecting us. Maybe she’d dreamed of us too. I thought oddly.
“It’s a beautiful day outside. Would you like us to take you out?” I asked.
“Oh boy, would I ever!” Annie said excitedly.
Avery and I worked as a team punching security codes, balancing doors, and steering small, uncooperative wheels until we were safely outside.
As usual, I asked Annie her favorite questions relating to Bingo, Elvis Presley, her mama’s cooking, and her love of arts and crafts. Annie answered each question happily. Periodically, a butterfly flittered past as if adding to the conversation.
“Look, Annie!” I said pointing to the colorful insect.
Like a child she giggled. “It’s marvelous! It’s just marvelous!”
“How’s your arm, Annie?” I asked knowing it often caused her pain. She immediately grabbed it and winced. The first time we met her, she told us she’d fallen from an airplane. Although the nurses were skeptical about that story, it never changed.
“It hurts … it always hurts,” Annie said as she rubbed it. She told us again about falling from a plane, this time adding a never-heard-before detail. “I was in the hospital for a long time,” she said. “I was under surveillance,” she said secretively. Avery looked at me surprised. Like me, she wasn’t expecting that word to come from this precious elderly woman’s lips.
Annie leaned forward as if to tell us something in confidence. “They kept a camera on me all the time. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go outside.” Her eyebrows burrowed as if remembering something painful. “I had an urge to leave,” she said, “but they wouldn’t let me.”
“Oh, that must have been terrible,” Avery sympathized as I struggled with what to say.
Annie looked up, surprised almost – and relieved – by Avery’s response. Perhaps her pain and her story had been dismissed again and again and today she was finally heard.
We pulled out the watercolor paints knowing it was one of Annie’s favorite activities. I made a flower for Annie to paint inside. But after a few strokes, Annie handed the brush to me. I added her favorite colors to the picture.
“What do you think?” I asked Annie.
“It’s absolutely wonderful! Just wonderful!” Annie rejoiced, but she was not looking at the paper; she was looking at the blue sky above her head.
Avery set down her own paintbrush and said, “Would you like me to sing one of your favorite songs?”
Annie nodded and began to sing along as Avery sang, “You Are My Sunshine.” About mid-way through the song, a tear came down Annie’s cheek. As she wiped it away, Avery kept singing.
In a matter of forty-five minutes, this precious woman had experienced a gamut of emotions: child-like joy, intense fear, pain, relief, and sadness. I was intrigued by the way my daughter stayed steady through them all. Annie’s swings of emotion and bouts of pain did not spring Avery into action, nor did they upset her or make her uncomfortable. They were just emotions, and Avery was willing to take them alongside her friend.
I reached up and felt the exquisite gold charm that hung from my neck. It was given to me at a recent speaking event in California. It was a handmade piece by a talented and grateful mother of a child with autism. The medallion read: “I feel it all.” When Dana gave it to me, she said she knew I’d understand.
She was right. Not only did I understand, I felt understood. “I feel it all” are words I know well – sometimes too well. I’ve always been highly sensitive, and for decades I tried to tone my feelings down, reign them in, toughen them up. But over the past few years, Avery has altered my perception of being a deep feeler. Her acceptance has helped me see my sensitivity as a gift and part of who I am. When I am moved to tears at animal shelters, churches, swim meets, and guitar recitals … when I am moved to tears by speeches of hope, stories of pain, well-written songs, horrible dreams, and beautiful sunsets … when I am moved to tears at inopportune times and inappropriate places, one daughter tries to fix or subdue before anyone notices while the other daughter says, “It’s okay. Cry if you need to. That’s just who you are, Mama.”
It did not surprise me that Avery was leery when I told her a reader of my blog thought they might be related to Annie and would be sending a friend to visit her.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she said skeptically. “They won’t know how to talk to her. They won’t understand her.”
“What do you mean?” I asked curiously.
“To just let her talk, even if it doesn’t make sense. Don’t try to correct her if she says she fell out of an airplane or dated Elvis. Don’t try to stop her tears if she cries or try to distract her from her sadness,” said Annie’s advocate with conviction. “Just let her feel what she feels.”
Just let her feel what she feels
And as I do several times as day, I thanked God for this child who teaches me so much about loving others well.
Sometimes other people’s emotions, struggles, memories, and grief are too much for us. Perhaps they make us feel uncomfortable or we feel helpless to “fix it” or we don’t know what to say so we distance ourselves. But what people most need in their feeling moment is for us to get close, stay steady, and let them feel what they feel.
And with that, I want to offer a bit of validation to you, dear ones:
First, to the feelers of the world:
We need you, those who feel it all. Your visible emotion reminds us what it means to be human. Please don’t wipe those tears; wear them proudly as your badge of honor. Your ability to feel it all is what enables you to create words, art, music, organizations, and conversations that connect, unify, and strengthen us.
Next, to the pain companions of the world:
We need you, those who sit with the deep feelers. To see, hear, and accept strong emotions without trying to fix them or push them away is a critical role. You are healers, encouragers, and light protectors who literally save a life each time you sit with someone else’s pain.
And finally, to those who are a bit numb, a bit out of touch with their emotions today:
If you suspect the feeling part of your soul has been suppressed, shamed, numbed, or dismissed far too long, today is a good day to rouse it awake and bring it into the sunshine …
Look at the changing colors of the leaves on the tree; let gratitude for what has been and what is to come fill your heart to the point of tears.
Watch your loved ones, young or old, doing what they do best; let your love for them spill out onto your cheeks.
Look at your hands; recognize that they’ve nurtured, sacrificed, worked, and worried. Let peace drip into those hands as you relish your quiet accomplishments.
Notice your thoughts. How do you really feel today? Reflect on your memories. What is your happiest memory? What is your most painful one? Close your eyes and dream. What is your greatest hope for this day, for this one precious life?
Feel it all right now, dear ones. Don’t wait another day to let your feelings show.
And if you fear you’re alone in your tears, please know you are not. There is a young girl and an elderly woman singing a familiar song about life’s joys and heartaches. Take a look. Along with a wondrous sight, you'll see this beautiful truth: When tears of pain unite with a steady companion, hope is born.
Let’s feel it all together, dear ones, and love each other well.
Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, meeting you face-to-face is one of my greatest joys. Here are my upcoming speaking events:
- Mandan, ND – Spirit of Life Women’s Retreat, Saturday, November 12th. This is a free event. Click here to register. (I will also be available to sign copies of Hands Free Mama and Hands Free Life. Feel free to bring your personal copy or purchase one at the event.)
- Jupiter, FL – Think Better, Live Better Conference. Click here to be the first to know when tickets go on sale.