The light within

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

                                                     — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

 “Would you mind if I brought a friend along to our Saturday breakfast?” my friend Al asked.  “I’ll be chauffeuring him up to Vermont afterwards that morning.”

“Fine with me,” I said.  I recognized the name—someone I had met previously but didn’t know well.

Our guest ambled into the restaurant with a cane.  A big man, he sported a neatly trimmed white beard and moustache.  We had selected one of the large booths to accommodate everyone.  Our guest inched down along the padded bench until he settled directly opposite me.

He had bright blue eyes and a strong voice.  He stowed his cane on the seat and shook hands all round.

The waitress poured the coffee and took our orders.  We made small talk until the plates of food arrived.

Our guest told us he was born on Long Island three months before the 1938 hurricane.  “They never forgave me for it,” he chuckled.

“Who?” I asked him.

“The city of New York.  They figured the storm was all my fault.  We moved south shortly after that.  Then on to Michigan’s upper peninsula.  At that time the houses were built with a front porch on each story.  With an average annual snowfall of 25 feet, local residents would sit out on the lower porch in summer and the upper one in winter.”

“A story for each season,” I mused.

“Yes,” he laughed.  “Eventually, we ended up on the west coast.  I call San Francisco my home.  That’s where I fell in love with sailing.”

“I used to do some sailing myself,” I told him.  “Up in Boston, when I was stationed on a Coast Guard cutter.”

“A Coastie, yes?  I served in the auxiliary for years myself.”

“What did you do for a living?” I asked.

“Worked as a newspaper reporter on the San Francisco Call-Bulletin for a number of years before I matriculated in theology school.  Went to British Honduras for a spell; later got into prison ministry at the federal penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida.”

He knew the folk music groups from the 60s:  Peter, Paul and Mary; the Kingston Trio; the New Christy Minstrels.  “That’s where John Denver got his start, you know,” he said.  “Of course, his name wasn’t ‘Denver’ back then—some long Polish name, never could pronounce it.”

Somehow the subject of Kubler-Ross’ stages of death and dying came up.  I told him that I had just returned from Atlanta, where I gave a presentation on caring for terminally ill children.

“I worked with Kubler-Ross when she was doing some studies on terminally ill children at Dallas Children’s Hospital,” he said.  “Some of her research was quite insightful:  doll play and creative art.  One kid drew a bird with a broken wing.  Another drew a bright yellow butterfly—I remember that one vividly.  Big, bright yellow.  He died shortly after that.”

We sat in silence for a moment.  An entire era flashed through my mind: the hurricane of 1938, the snows in upper Michigan, sailing on San Francisco bay, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and Woodstock, a boat in Belize, the Tallahassee penitentiary, death and dying in Dallas—somehow all coming together over a Saturday morning breakfast of bacon, eggs and homefries.

He was a big man with a white beard and moustache.  If you looked carefully at his bright blue eyes, you could sense the light shining from within.


2 comments on “The light within

  1. DJE says:

    “It was an ancient mariner and he stoppeth one of three/By thy long gray beard and glittering eye, wherefore stoppeth thou me?” (sorry if I’ve missed a word or two). It’s amazing how many stories are buried within — some of us are gifted at telling them — others tongue-tied. I recall Faith Fitzgerald’s essay “On Curiosity.” This gray-beard is a gifted bard, like the itinerant Irish story teller (shanachie) of old — I hope you paid for his eggs and sausage. Did you get CEUs for the breakfast session? Cheers. D

  2. ~ t says:

    We couldn’t be like “stained-glass”, since our shared elements require more energy to emit “light”. Ms. Kubler-Ross really meant to describe the opposite of inanimate, fused, silica molecules. Language is such
    an interesting invention …

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