M. Regina Cram
Yeah, yeah, I know. One person can make a difference in the world. Blah, blah, blah . . . .
Ive heard that speech for as long as I can remember. I heard it in college when I joined the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. I listened to it again in corporate seminars and volunteer organizations, not to mention in about a million homilies. Blah, blah ....
Its not that I dont believe it. It just seems a bit, well, a bit Pollyanna-ish.
I admit that there have been notable occasions when one person made a difference in my life, by single-handedly turning an otherwise delightful day into a living nightmare. I have a hunch that this is not the lesson Im supposed to be learning, however. Im supposed to remember that no one can take my place and that I can make a positive difference in anothers life.
I caught a glimpse of this maxim some years back, but dont get your hopes up that it turned me into a believer. It was near the end of a terribly difficult year as I battled a relentless illness that was unresponsive to treatment. I was depressed and gaunt as I sat at the kitchen table one weekday morning, feeling sorry for myself. It was Christmas week. It was also my birthday, and no one had remembered.
As I sat alone, there was a knock at the door, and in walked my old friend, Madeline. For years she and I had hung out together while our children played. More recently, however, Madelines life had taken very difficult turns, rendering her unavailable for long, leisurely talks.
This particular day she couldnt linger because she had to get to work, but she stopped by to deliver a special birthday gift to me. Madeline had handwritten a 14-page letter, which she presented to me along with a pound of my favorite coffee. My assignment was to brew a cup of good coffee, put my feet up and enjoy a visit with her via her letter. The only stipulation was that I reciprocate when her birthday rolled around in March, which I gladly agreed to do. Her visit turned the day into a delightful celebration.
So, fine, one person can make a difference. Madeline made a difference in my day.
Several months later as Madelines birthday approached, I dutifully sat down and wrote a long, newsy letter to her. I talked about lifes ups and downs, about teenage woes and romantic tragedies and family hilarities that make up my world. As with her letter to me, it was quite long. I added a funny card, and planned to deliver it on her birthday that coming Saturday.
Saturday was busy as usual, with a dump run and yard work and kids soccer games to attend. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon and I still hadnt delivered my letter. The sun was beginning to set as I grabbed the card and letter, and headed out the door.
When I pulled into Madelines driveway, I recognized a car belonging to her estranged husband. No one answered my knock, so I pushed open the door and was met with the sound of off-key singing. There, gathered around a small butcher-block table, stood her former husband and their children singing Happy Birthday, badly. It was a Kodak moment in a family that had very few Kodak moments anymore.
When the singing stopped, Madeline glanced up to see me. Then she turned back to her family and said quietly, See? I told you shed come.
I felt terrible. My friend had been waiting all day, and I was so cavalier about the whole thing. I hadnt bothered to deliver Madelines letter until most of her birthday was over. Besides, I quickly realized that my letter was not one gift among many for my troubled friend. It was the only birthday gift Madeline received that year, and shed been waiting for it all day. Id been a jerk about it.
Can one person make a difference? Sure. But the message to me that year was the converse: I cannot assume that someone else is stepping in to fill a need. Sometimes, if I dont do it, it really wont get done.
And thats a message worthy of a few million homilies.
M. Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.