I reach my arms out toward a shaggy-haired hipster in a navy blue and white striped v-neck. He is tall and slightly gangly, perhaps still growing into his mid-20s. His hair is longer than I have ever seen it, certainly longer than it was in September. He gives me a hug. A real one. The kind of hug that makes you feel like you were missed. That makes you wonder why you ever chose to leave a community in which you felt so securely loved.
“It’s good to see you,” he says, and I know that he means it. “How are you?”
We are making small talk before a service begins. Though I am honestly “happy” and actually “doing well” for the first time in a while, I’ve never liked giving trite responses to the question “How are you?”
My friend presents me with an alternative, a question I might be able to answer in the remaining two minutes before the music begins: “What sort of phrase sums up your past year?” he asks.
I search my brain for something more descriptive than “eye-opening” and less cryptic than “transformative.” I feel the synapses fire from broken to molded to reformed to hopeful, images of shapeless clay and open hands, tear-stained pillows and budding trees scattered across my mental thesaurus.
I don’t have an answer, a phrase, or a picture. Not one.
We agree to meet for lunch.
Two days later we exchange hugs again. This time at Kansas City’s Westside Local. He gets a gourmet grilled cheese with a side of tomato fennel soup and some of the best seasoned french fries I’ve ever tasted. I order the goat cheese and arugula salad with toasted walnuts and juicy slices of chicken breast. It is June in the midwest and we are dining outdoors. Though I welcome the heat of summer sun, I still can’t appreciate the humidity. I down my first glass of water.
“So, how’s California?” he asks.
“It’s great,” I say. “I love it.” I trained myself to respond this way last fall, as though I needed to convince myself that I had made a wise choice in taking out thousands of dollars in student loans, packing up the little pieces of my life, and moving 1500 miles to one of the most expensive cities in the country. I’ve moved a lot. Transitioned a lot. Adventured a lot. But going to California is the riskiest thing I have ever done with my money, my time, my heart and my life. I do love it, though. Sometimes for reasons I can’t even explain.
We share stories from the past year of our lives. He tells me about teaching middle school choir, directing Schoolhouse Rock Jr. and partnering with the senior high choral director to build a legacy, a “choral dynasty” he calls it. I tell a little him about my writing classes, my dalliance in restaurant reviews and the articles I’ve been doing for a local paper. Everything I say is true of the past year of my life. But it’s not the truest part, the part I don’t know how to articulate.
He tells me about some of the relationships he’s been in since I saw him last September. I share too many details about my own, forgetting that such things seem rather irrelevant when you know from the start that it didn’t work out in the end. We exchange sympathies and philosophies on love and relationships.
When he gets up to use the restroom I pick up my phone and begin scrolling through Facebook. I see a picture of my friends’ new baby. He was born in Kansas City at 9:30 that morning, while I was running past Worlds of Fun and listening to Two Door Cinema Club. As I fixate on the two posted pictures I am overcome with a desire to meet him. As if I know already that he has something to teach me.
Three days later I am sitting in a wooden rocking chair, a large c-shaped pillow wrapped around my waist like the front half of a flotation device. The newborn is in my arms and I am mesmerized by the softness of his skin, the flutter of his eyelids, and the fullness of his being. When he is asleep, really asleep, he seems to sleep with great purpose, as though all that is in him knows he must sleep if he is ever to have the strength to be fully awake.
His parents are new parents. As new to the notion of parenthood as their infant is to the world. They are still getting used to having him around, learning day by day how to swaddle and suck and swing and shush–four of the five S’s that put babies to sleep.
His father is a scientist. Technically he is a structural engineer, but engineering is a science and many who pursue it are investigators at heart. He reflects on how interesting it will be to watch his son discover–to see him interact with light and dark and sound and space, to find his own fingers and toes and nose and ears, to sneeze and laugh and hiccup and cry. There will be so many firsts, he says, so many things that this child will experience for the first time even before he has words to describe them. So many epiphanies.
Yes, I think, finding the language that has been alluding me for the past five days. Yes, exactly. Epiphany is the single word that sums up the past year of my life. A year in which I, like this child, have been seeing for the first time what is and has been right in front of me.
I look down at the baby in my lap. His eyes are shut tightly, in that intentional, purposeful way. Right now he is busy growing bones and doubling cells, getting ready for the stimulation that surrounds him on waking. I wonder how many years he will spend discovering the world. If he will ever stop seeing it with new eyes and understanding. I hope he will not. I hope it will always be new.
But then I also hope that this child will learn quickly, that it will not take him quite so long to appreciate love and friendship, to learn the necessity of forgiveness, to gain the wisdom that is hard-won.
Later that evening, the baby sleeps and I talk with his mother, cycling through the string of regrets, reflections and realizations that has been lengthening ever since I came back from Europe last summer.
“I was just so stupid,” I hear myself say for the thousandth time. I’ve admitted this to a number of my friends, some of whom don’t know how to respond. “Don’t say those things,” they tell me. “You’re too hard on yourself. You weren’t stupid.”
But I was. And the woman sitting across from me and I both know this.
There is a freedom in seeing your own stupidity, in the epiphany that comes when you realize that you had been solving a problem backwards, connecting the wrong wires, pushing when you should have pulled. It takes humility to learn from your mistakes. It requires that your desire to do or be better is stronger than your desire to be right.
Epiphany can lead to apology, when in a moment of revelation we realize that our words were hurtful, our actions were dismissive, our ideas were selfish, if not dead wrong. When we are forgiven for those actions there can be life and healing and connection and growth. And when we are not, there is at the very least wisdom, which is no small take away.
“Month after month, I keep realizing how much I thought I knew and how little I really did,” I tell my friend. There is a sadness in my voice, a longing for the sort of redemption that I may never know.
She looks at me and gives a half-smile. “At least you know now,” she says.
“If I had known how hard this whole thing would be, I’m not sure I would have gone through it,” I say. “I’m glad I know now, but I wish I had realized it sooner.”
I visit the baby four times before leaving Kansas City. Each time he and his parents have learned something new–that he likes the sound of crinkling paper and goes into a “milk coma” after his feedings. Both he and they will continue to learn every day for the rest of their lives. They will all make mistakes. They will all have revelations. I can only hope that they won’t come too late. That there will be enough time and grace to accept epiphany as it comes.