The Dark Gift

The Dark Gift

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Dark Gift

The look on her face was one of numb disbelief. “It can’t be,” she says. “Why me? Why now?”

“It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be,” I said to my good friend Alex, as she sat there staring vacantly at the heavy cast on her leg. One moment she was running about, preparing for college, worrying about books, her car and which classes to take. Now, she was sitting here with a broken ankle. It all happened so suddenly.

This was the first time Alex had collided with an indifferent world. Everything else had been negotiable, arguable. Everything else up to now could be avoided, escaped, bought off, laughed away.

I tried to comfort her and tell her it would be all right. But this was real; this was hers. No one could change it, make it right, make it fair. It was life—an absolute without explanation— that was indifferent to her plans and dreams.

“My life is ruined,” she sighed, feeling utterly depressed.

“No, your life isn’t ruined. Just consider this one of those dark gifts. A bad circumstance can teach you something valuable, maybe even change your life.”

Suddenly, I remembered the time several years ago when I, too, had broken an ankle. It was March. The streets were slushy paths, and corners were precarious hard-packed trails, through mounds of ice and snow. I struggled on crutches, trying to balance on uneven surfaces of ice. People pushed past me, muttering about how they had to get through, about how I was taking so long. I tried gingerly to make my way up over the snowpack without slipping or letting my cast drag in the slush. My arms ached from the tension, my shoulders were rigid and numb from the digging pain of the crutches. I tried to block out the others around me, not to feel them brushing brusquely past me.

Crutch by crutch, I made my way down to the street. Cars flew by, splashing slush on my cast. I hobbled into the street. The approaching cars were not slowing. I tried to hurry, but the icy ground was too precarious. Cars slid to a stop, and drivers leaned on their horns. I was consumed with my own fragile balance, ashamed of my deliberate pace, frustrated at others’ lack of concern.

I looked across at the snowbank I would have to negotiate on the opposite side of the street. There, making her way down through the small uneven pathway of ice, was an old woman with a cane. People were standing behind her muttering. She was feeling with her foot, trying to find solid ground. No one could help her; there was not enough room for two abreast. I saw her frantic look, her shaking hands. Then, for an instant, she looked up. Across the distance of that icy, slush-filled street, our eyes met. The fear, the sadness, the frustration, the utter aloneness of our respective plights, were mirrored in our respective gazes.

I wanted to help her, but I could not. I could barely make my way across the street myself. The other pedestrians rushing past us were no help either. To them we were impediments to the necessary pace of daily living. To the drivers in the long line of cars that was backing up in the street, we were insufferable obstructions. We approached each other from opposite directions. As we passed, we glanced at each other.

“Hi,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

She, who had the added fear of being elderly and alone on a city street, did not know whether to answer. Finally, she said, very softly, “Hello.” Cars honked at the further slowing of pace that had been caused by our brief conversation. Other walkers brushed against us in their rush to get to the other side.

We looked again at each other, then went on. The cars revved and drove past in anger as soon as we were out of their path.

When I got to the other side, I turned to see how the woman was doing. She was feeling for the path through the snow with her cane. When she found her footing, she stopped as if she had accomplished a huge feat. She turned to look at me, and she smiled a sweet and tender smile. She knew I understood. For a moment she didn’t feel so alone, and neither did I.

I wanted to tell Alex this story. But she was lost in her own world. I watched her as she put her backpack on and moved on unsteady crutches down the hallway. She had an evening class that she had to attend. “I never knew that doorknobs could be so much work,” she said as she balanced on one leg and tried to open the door.

“Steps, revolving doors, taking baths, crossing streets. You’ve got a lot of fun ahead of you,” I said. “But make sure to keep your eyes open for those dark gifts. They will be some of the best lessons you will ever be fortunate enough to learn.”

Her pack slipped off her shoulder and almost pulled her over. I wanted to help her. But there was nothing I could do. “I’ll never make fun of old people again,” she said.

With that, I remembered the sweet smile of that woman. “Neither will I.”

Kent Nerburn

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