Carole invited us to her house today. It was a very unassuming, cozy house in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. There would be no better place to host a meal for our party of seven.
We arrived one by one, making our way to the dining table through the bright walls of the foyer. For some of us, this was an introduction and reunion of sorts. Reilly was new to the group, and Kaori hadn’t seen us since she regained full walking ability, since her life-threatening car accident over a year ago. Seeing them reminded me of the blessing it is to make new friends and not take old friends for granted.
Carole had prepared her grill for well-seasoned steaks and chicken. We insisted on helping, as Carole is well into her seventies and had no business carrying out the tasks that were before her, but she refused. “All I want you guys to do is sit down and relax. I want to treat you as kings and queens today,” she said.
She meant it. So we sat around the dining table, making light conversation as we told stories and laughed at memories. From time to time, I would peek into the backyard to find a frail, thin grandmother hunched over with her tongs, smiling as she cooked our meal on her old-fashioned grill.
The meal was delicious. I jokingly asked Carole what her rate was and whether she would consider working a few months as my personal chef. She laughed and smiled, merely pleased that our group was satisfied with what she had presented. After the meal we offered to do the cleaning, but again Carole refused. Her only request was that we continue our talks and play our games and enjoy the time we had together–it was her gift to us.
In the backdrop I would see Carole put away dishes and wipe down the countertops, her face lined with an indelible smile. Every now and then she would laugh or contribute her two cents when something caught her fancy. She listened to us with great interest and joy. She played the role of the delighted observer to the jot and tittle.
As the evening winded down, we said our goodbyes and thanked her incessantly. We were perhaps a bit sheepish that someone her age would bend over backwards just to ensure a good time. Indeed, we were treated like royalty.
As we were leaving, Peter pulled me aside.
“Did you know that Earl passed away?” he asked.
“Yes, he went in December,” I recalled. “It had been a rough time for her.”
“That’s tough, man,” he sighed. “But she was really happy we were there. You can tell by her face. We filled her house with laughter, with sound.”
“I bet she hasn’t heard that in awhile,” he said.
For a minute I had forgotten her story. I didn’t think about her struggles without Earl, only about how discourteous it was to have her do all the work. It didn’t feel right to be treated so well. In my pride, I struggled with accepting her gift.
But she didn’t need us to do the cooking or chores. What she needed were voices, and laughter. She needed to feel a connection, something she has not felt much since her husband passed away.
Carole had purposed for us a different role on this day. In her service to us, and in our humble reception and enjoyment of it, she found fulfillment. She realized an unbridled joy in the mere presence of company. She wanted us to be filled and merry; we returned the favor simply by indulging.
It was our gift to her on this day. And to her that made all the difference.