Dinner Roulette

“My mom is a miracle,” declares the woman on the train with a wide smile. She’s tonight’s dinner companion, the latest assignment in Amtrak’s policy to share dining tables. She’s so happy to be riding the rails instead of the bus to her family gathering outside Little Rock. Her name is Shirley. “Isn’t this better? she asks the guy sitting with her. He has a wild mound of hair somewhat contained by a backward baseball cap. He shoots Shirley a grin even bigger than hers.  These are faces of people who’ve lived hard — lined and leathered.

“Mom was in a coma, but now she’s awake.” Shirley’s eyes sparkle. She exclaims at the beauty of the sunset, how tasty the vegetables are, and shyly admits that her family at home consists of 31 cats that she misses desperately. Randy, her companion, shakes his head. Too many cats.

These are not people we would normally have dinner with.

I expect her to go on about the miracle. How God healed her mother. How everything would now be OK forever and ever Amen. I think of my friend, recently admitted to hospital for a reoccurence of leukemia. He’d had a miracle 18 months ago too.  I prepare to suppress a bristle, my shake-off-the-incompatible-theology-shrug. I prepare a retreat to simpler and safer dinner conversation. Shirley fill us in on the miracle.

“While Mom was in the coma, my brothers and sisters took turns being with her, talking with her, holding her hand. She’d squeeze their hands. I believe they can hear us.” My husband James and I nod. We agree with Shirley there. Yes, they can hear us. At least if they aren’t distracted by something else going on in their unknown consciousness. “Two days they all circled around Mom’s bed to say goodbye. Finally she opened her eyes and said,”Where’s Shirley?” She knew I wasn’t there. Then the next day she woke up and stayed awake.”

Shirley didn’t need the Almighty to lift her Mom’s illness completely from her to see a miracle. Shirley recognized the bigger miracle, of how she was known, missed, called for, loved. In that rolling dining room, Shirley offered us a seat at the welcome table, where strangers from different tribes sit together. And if we’re paying attention, those strangers’ stories might break through our distraction and unconsciousness. We may open our eyes to see who is missing, needed, loved.

Thanks for the miracle Shirley.

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