What does one do when one has lost everything?
I had a chance recently to visit with some folks who have been through a lot. In late fall 2008, their house had burnt down. To the ground. Total loss.
These are people in their senior years, and had a lifetime of memories in that household. They’ve travelled much with his business and collected beautiful wall hangings, carpets, and artwork from various places around the world. She is a woman who loves history and knowledge…she could tell the story of each piece, and often of the artisan who crafted it, in detail. They love knowledge, learning and history…and had the books of a lifetime in the library of that house. They love family, roots, genealogies…and had objects from previous generations to remember loved ones from times past (and had the story to go along with each item).
And then, one day, while they weren’t home, it went up in flames. Very little could be salvaged. They were homeless…and had lost so much that had so much meaning.
Amongst the conversation of the evening, she told me of an unforgettable experience. She was standing in the charred remains of what had been their library…sodden, now frozen charred remains of books, some still on the shelves, some knocked over on the ground. Her heart was numb, full and empty at the same time. She was beaten, forlorn, and utterly overwhelmed with a sense of loss.
She looked up to the sky (the ceiling had collapsed and the room was open to the elements) and noticed a maple leaf falling from the neighbor’s overhanging tree. The breeze captured a leaf…perfectly symmetrical, with the bright oranges, reds, and yellows that only a Canadian maple leaf can have. And the leaf gently, gracefully floated back and forth to land in the middle of the charred library, near where she stood.
She was captured by it’s beauty, made starker by the blackness all around. As she was telling the story of this maple leaf in the library, her voice got stronger, more animated. She said something like, “My heart was so full of so much at that moment. So much. I wish I had been a poet. I wish I was an artist, because somehow I wanted to capture that incredibly enormity of all that I was feeling in that moment. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t have words for all that was happening.” That moment of the maple leaf falling into the blackness of her destroyed home was something she will never forget.
There is something to that, I think. How, in moments of despair, the small act of kindness of a friend, or a snapshot of beauty stands out in stark contrast to the misery of the situation. How the deepest of pits is suddenly illuminated with light for a brief moment. What was particularly striking in this story, is that the beauty of that maple leaf occurred because it was itself dying and being released by the maple as the days were colder.
It was a difficult year of negotiating with the insurance company, and making millions of choices as the house was rebuilt and restocked. A time of living in strange surroundings for months as rebuilding was taking place, only to move back to a new house that while beautiful, was not the familiar house from before.
But she hasn’t forgotten the maple leaf. And the unwritten poem of the power of that moment stays with her.