My stepbrother lives in a house he and his wife built next door to the farmhouse where he grew up. Two years ago, his father died in the farmhouse, after a long and terrible fight with cancer. My stepfather’s last days were spent resting on the sofa in front of his wood-burning stove, tended lovingly by my mother and dedicated hospice nurses.
Each morning that winter, my stepbrother cut and stacked wood outside the back door of the house where he’d grown up. He came in and built up the fire for his father, putting extra wood within easy reach, making sure the pieces were small enough for the nurses to manage. He could not stop the cancer, he could not ease the pain, he could not fix the world.
He could keep his father warm and give my mother one less thing to worry about.
We can’t fix this world we live in. Loved ones die, jobs and homes are lost, wildfires rage out of control. We can’t quiet the storm, we can’t bring reason to the mob, we can’t stop Time or his sister Death. If we stop too long to think on our own powerlessness, we’ll be unable to cope. So, we all do what we can, as we can.
We are creatures of the aftermath, we humans. Brisk and pragmatic, we arrive at the scene of devastation with brooms and mops, with axes and hammers, with casseroles and tea. We fill the dog’s dish, water the houseplants, take a confused child out to the movies for an afternoon. This is the brave face, the one that says I cannot take on your pain for you, I cannot ease that burden, but I can catch the small things you otherwise might let fall.
It is one of the most basic ways in which we reinforce community, building ties and connections to keep chosen families whole. It’s our own defiance, our self-assurance that we still have some control over our lives: that one person, armed with a strong back and a broom and a pot of tea, can stand firm in the face of chaos.
There are those among us who shine only when life is at its darkest, and most often to light the path for others. You won’t see them at the parties, never the center of attention. You will see them carrying the smoky clothes out of your burned home, and returning with armfuls of clean laundry. You’ll see their names scratched on the bottoms of casserole pans delivered to a house in mourning, you’ll find them on your doorstep saying, “I heard you might be having a rough time. Let me buy you dinner.”
As they stand beside you, to join your battles, they’re also fighting theirs: against apathy, against fear, against whatever moments in the past they could not fix or control. Scratch a hero, look deeper into a kind spirit, and you’ll often find a broken heart fighting its own demons alongside yours. Look even beyond that, and you’ll see that we’re all broken in some way or another. It is when we piece together our own jagged edges and temper the bond with fire and tears, that we create something new, and strong, and beautiful between us.