Sometimes the best I can be is a perfect strangerFebruary 27, 2018
I couldn’t help but notice.
The paper was covered with dark ink.
It looked like a puzzle or a maze but the words and numbers among the geometric patterns stood out.
Here was a person thinking about:
There were images of a clock with a burning fuse, a path leading to a cliff and a river of tears. There were numbers that appeared to be randomly placed but also appeared to be drawn over the top of other images.
There seemed to be a contest on the page between whys and why nots.
The darkness was winning.
When she caught me looking at it, she tore it out and crumpled it up.
She believes she is an accident of nature, the by-product of a relationship that both her mom and dad now consider a mistake. She compares herself to other people’s Instagrams. She looks around at the people we can see – and makes up stories about their relative joy or misery, the secret sins and pain she assumes their smiles mask. Life, she has decided, is pain.
Next to the crumpled paper she starts drawing again. No words this time.
She’s drawing dead end mazes.
She draws rapidly. She has covered this terrain before.
One white corner is preserved.
There are no paths to it.
That place of light seems unreachable.
I hesitate to say anything as I stir the condiments into my coffee for longer than is necessary.
I pray silently.
I felt all the tension go out of my body as it was settling into the chair across from her at the community table. As if I were sitting with an old friend for a long unhurried visit.
Without asking her name and without offering mine, I heard myself say, “Tell me your story.”
Looked up from her doodle long enough to confirm that I was talking specifically to her.
She began with a roll of the eyes and slight shake of the head and then in a monotone voice began.
(No, I didn’t have time for this on my Google calendar. Yes, I periodically felt my phone alerting me that things I had planned were clicking past. And yes, in this moment I knew that God would make time and provision for everything I thought I was supposed to be doing as I tended to the one person who in this one moment was my divine appointment.)
Her story was unremarkable in every way.
Her parents were divorced. School was boring. Her friendships were maintained on apps and rarely did she spend time with people her own age outside of school. She was at the coffee shop because her mom’s new boyfriend was at the house and her mom was at work and she didn’t have anywhere else to go and nothing to do. This was second home.
She never had anything to do.
There was nothing to do.
This town sucks.
To give you some context, we were sitting in a coffee shop that shares a driveway with the YMCA. Through the parking lot was a large church with programs and groups open to girls her age. Every store along the strip malls to the left and across the road had “Now Hiring” signs in the windows. There was a box in the window of books others had left behind to share. There is a community bulletin board just above the box advertising all kinds of “things to do.” The town is not the problem – but I resisted pointing any of this out.
Her pain is no greater than the pain of others.
Her sorrows included no particular weight of grief too great to bear.
She was as average a teenager as I have ever met.
And she saw no reason to continue living among the circumstances of her very privileged American life.
The question piercing my thoughts was “how do I turn on the light without driving her further into the darkness? How do I begin without immediately turning her off?”
I prayed for wisdom and again simply heard myself say, “Do you come here every day?”
“Where else would I go?” she grunted.
“So you’ll be here tomorrow?” I continued.
“Ok, I said. Then I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
“Really?” she responded. I thought I sensed a note of hopeful anticipation in her voice.
“Yes. Around the same time?”
And with that, I got up and left.
All the way to the car I’m wondering why I didn’t give her my number, why I didn’t offer to pray for her, why I didn’t tell her that life is full of beauty and wonder and opportunity. Why didn’t I share the gospel. And even as I thought it I felt the very strong confirmation of the Spirit, “you did.”
I added the appointment to my Google calendar.
I called the Y to see what kind of options they had.
I checked the church website.
I downloaded The Hopeline app on my phone to share with her.
And I prayed.
On my way past the coffee shop the following morning I stopped in to fill the book box with good options. And I pinned a list of classes for the Y to the bulletin board along with a list of youth activities at the church next door.
When the after-school arrived, I anxiously returned.
She wasn’t there.
She never showed.
I felt a combination of worry and defeat.
I finally asked the Barista and she said, “O yeah, she left a note.”
My heart simultaneously lifted and sank. What kind of note?
The hurriedly folded notebook paper just said, “Nice try lady but I know what you’re doing. I don’t need your Jesus – freak. Thanks for ruining the one place I could go and not be bothered.”
I walked hurriedly to my car but the tears didn’t wait.
I just sat there and sobbed.
For a long time…
The windows steamed up with my hot heaves.
Until I heard knocking.
I rolled down the partially-steamed window and there she was.
She sounded off in a mixture of anger and concern when she said, ““Why are you crying? Why do you even care?” Then she paused before adding, “I’m sorry I called you a freak.”
I smiled – or more like smirked – “I’m not crying because you called me a freak. I know I’m a freak. I’m crying because I thought you’d disappeared and might have,” I paused, “done something.”
“No. I’m here.”
And so we talked right there.
Me sitting in the driver’s seat of my car.
Her standing outside the passenger window.
I was going to follow her lead – if she suggested we go inside, I would. But I wasn’t suggesting it.
I asked very directly, “your note said you didn’t need my Jesus. Why did you write that?”
“Who else would have spent so much time yesterday with a stranger? You have to be one of those Jesus people, right?”
I agreed, “Right.”
And with that the conversation turned.
I got to talk about Jesus.
I got to speak truth to the lies she’d heard about Him and about herself.
I got to untangle the web of some of her muddled ideas.
I even got to pull my Bible out of my purse and read her the opening paragraphs of the Gospel of Mark.
I got to point to the church that was literally over her shoulder and tell her that young people just like her gathered there every Sunday morning, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday evenings.
Time passed and eventually she said, “I gotta go.”
“Really?” I asked with raised eyebrows and feigned astonishment. “I didn’t think you had anywhere to go or anything to do?”
“I’ve got a life,” she said over the first smile I’d ever seen from her.
“You have a beautiful smile!” I blurted out.
“Yeah, that’s what they tell me,” she admitted.
“They? Who are they? I thought you didn’t have any friends” I nearly yelled, again with a sarcastic tone.
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe you got me on a bad day yesterday. My life’s not that bad. Not as bad as some other people I know. But I gotta go.”
“Ok, thanks for showing up today.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Wait,” I called as she turned. “Can I ask if you still have the crumpled piece of paper you were doodling when I met you yesterday?”
“No, I threw it away. And it wasn’t a doodle. It was my 13 reasons why.”
I knew what that meant.
And with that, she walked out of my life and into hers.
Two or three weeks passed and although I stopped frequently at the same coffee shop, I didn’t see her but one day there was a note tucked under my wiper blade when I got back to the car.
It read, “Perfect Stranger, I put you on my list of 13 reasons why…not. – Sara”
I sat in my car and wept again.