We spoke recently with a young woman who told us of her late Grandfather. The man was calm, dignified and gracious. His smile spread just wide enough to let a deep laugh reverberate through the room, infecting everyone with joy. It was that rare type of laughter, the kind that shakes you out of your preoccupations and reminds you that somewhere a puppy is sneezing, and so the world can not be completely bad.
And when the sickness took hold of his lungs, though his laugh was muffled and riddled with gasps, choked and weak, his smile remained wide. The young woman was a child then and when she visited her family’s dying patriarch tears would streak down her little face, leaving glistening lines that mapped her distress. Grandpa would take out a soft handkerchief and dab at the salty lines before carefully folding it back into his breast pocket, explaining to his grandchild that each of her tears would eventually become a diamond. Then he would smile his grand smile and cough out a bassy, grumbling laugh.
During one visit to her Grandfather’s hospital, a nurse entered the room explaining it was time to take some blood for certain complicated reasons that neither he nor his grandchild understood. But his veins were weak and old, hiding under weathered skin, forcing the nurse to struggle in her search. Again and again she punctured his arm, each time to no avail. The young girl squirmed in her seat as she watched her hero wince in anticipation of each new prick. When the nurse threw up her arms in frustration the Grandfather chuckled and put his pale hand on hers.
“Patience dear, patience,” he said.
After the nurse left carrying three vials of deep red liquid, the child would ask her Grandfather “Why are you nice to that mean nurse? She hurts you and is mean to you.”
“Yes sweetheart, you’re right,” he would reply. “But what happens when I am cruel back? Well then we have two cruel people, and that is not a very good thing at all I think. I believe it is better to have one mean person and one sweet person, because then the mean one sees that it’s nice to be treated nicely. You would agree, no?”
This did not make sense. The little girl explained how the nurse was rude, unfriendly and therefore did not deserve any kindness. So when the woman re-entered his room for another strange medical reason, the old man began asking questions. Despite the personal nature of his inquiries, the questions did not seem intrusive and so his nurse responded with comfortable honesty.
She was having a difficult day. Her child had fallen ill and needed parental care but the nurse could not get her shift covered; the hospital was understaffed, its employees overworked. Her boss seemed uninterested in the nurse’s situation and had scolded her several times for insignificant reasons.
“And on top of that, my veins refuse to cooperate. What a day,” concluded the dying Grandfather, “what a day.”
When the nurse had finished the mysterious duty and left to make her rounds, the old man turned and faced his granddaughter. Pulling up his left sleeve, he revealed a faded tattoo with several numbers on it.
“You know sweetheart,” he began, “some very mean people put this on me when I wasn’t much older than you. For a long time after that I became mean too, just like them. I yelled at people and called them names, sometimes I even hit them.”
“No,” gasped the young girl.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “But then one day when as I was shouting at another man for some silly reason, he spoke back to me calmly, which was unusual. He said to me ‘Things can not be so bad young man. I have gone through more than you can imagine, and still I am not so mad as you.’ Well that made me very angry because I thought nobody could have gone through more than me.
So I showed him my tattoo and asked him what he thought of it. Well the man looked at it thoughtfully and told me he thought it looked familiar. Then he lifted up his sleeve and showed me a tattoo just like mine. Would you believe it?
Well this man said to me, ‘Son, you must go slowly and gently through the world. Everybody has a past, everybody has a story, and everybody carries a burden. It may seem insignificant to you, but to them it is everything, so be nice when you cross paths.’
And with that he smiled, rolled down his sleeve and continued on his way. I never met him again, but always kept that wisdom in my heart.”
And so when the old man smiled his last smile, passing contently out of the world which had taken and given so much, he left with his grandaughter that very important lesson.
Our friend told us that after her Grandfather passed, her family began the process of emptying his house of all the belongings he had acquired over the years. In his study was an ancient desk that had always fascinated her as a child, and as she sat on a comfy leather chair going through its contents she found a small, unlabeled box. Inside were pictures of her, first as a baby, then growing over the years into a young adult.
Underneath the pile of photographs was his handkerchief, neatly folded like it had always been, clean and soft. She touched it to her face fondly, remembering the countless tears it had dried until suddenly something fell out from inside its creased edges. Lying on the cherrywood floor was a ring laden with small diamonds, sparkling gently in the dim light. She picked it up and rolled it through her fingers, looking curiously at its beautiful details until she noticed an inscription on its inner side. Written carefully in beautiful signature the words read “Violet’s tears”.
As she slid the delicate ring onto her finger, her eyes welled up and she smiled, wiping them with his old cloth. Violet said she wore that ring everyday and never forgot the lesson her Grandfather had imparted on her from his deathbed. It served to remind her that struggle was universal, beautiful and shared by all. And so whenever Violet felt anger toward another, she would remember her Grandfather’s wide smile, take a breath and act kindly.