Even from ten people behind in the line, I could see her pain. It was all over her. I could see the struggle in her body. She had that tired, forced smile. Her shoulders were slumped and her voice was meek.
When it was our turn to get onto the ride, she measured my girl for height, as she had the previous hundreds of kids that day. “Go ahead.”
I looked her in the eyes and put my hand on her shoulder. “It will be OK,” I said.
“Will it?” she said and looked at me with such intensity I almost cried. The pain was all over her face. Her mask was off.
“It will,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. “It has to.”
She straightened up a bit and the mask returned. We boarded the swings and my sweet darling and I laughed and laughed as we went around. We kicked our feet in the air and allowed ourselves to be swept up into the joy and feeling of flying.
When we got off the ride, I locked eyes with her again and she smiled. I don’t know her or her story, but I can recognize pain.
Lately I have been acutely aware of the immense sorrow and pain in the world. It doesn’t even have to be something big, but sometimes it can feel like your world is closing in.
We all walk around carrying these things. We have to put forth our fake faces and walk about our day like nothing is wrong. We order coffee. Pump our gas. Buy our groceries. Make small talk. Play with our kids at the park. Fake a smile. Tuck our kids into bed and tell them everything is OK.
We might be dying to scream “I’m in freakin pain here!” But we don’t. It’s not the right time. Never.
I know this isn’t an original thought our idea, but I’ve just been struck hard lately by this reality of life. So much is going on all around us, yet we can’t just walk around with our stories hanging out. We can’t let our sadness or anger effect our daily lives. Shit has to get done.
So, we put on our masks. We bottle it up and push it down for the greater good. If we are lucky we have a friend or spouse we can share our real selves with, but often the time isn’t right. We can’t fall apart now. Not now. The time isn’t now. It’s NEVER now.
That same day at the amusement park, Lola kept riding a small boat ride over and over. We were the only ones in the line and I said to the teenage girl working the ride, “saying that safety speech over and over must get old.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, “it’s a good job for someone my age.”
We talked for about five minutes more as Lola rode the ride a few more times. I was floored by this girl’s story and the candor and poise with which she shared it. She had a baby at 15. She was 16 now. The job had no medical, but she had a plan. She smiled the entire time. Beaming as she told me about her beautiful girl and her plans to be a nurse someday and be a role model for her daughter. I have no doubts that will happen. It has to.
As I was about to walk away she said, “No one has ever asked about my life before. Thanks for talking to me. It felt good to talk to someone.”
Stories. Stories. Stories.
I wish I could take a day and just walk around and ask people their stories. Tell me something. No. Tell me something real. Take off the mask for a minute. I want to see you. The real you.
I realize that we are designed to push emotions aside and function. We cannot and should not walk around with all our stuff hanging out. Gross. But I love stories and I love people.
So I will step out into the world like I do everyday, with my mask on. I will smile at people and make small talk. I will chase my kids around and fill our day with errands and, if lucky, see a friend or two.
If I know you, please know that I’m happy to see you anyway you need to be – mask on or off. I promise to never try to pry off your mask. I know you need it. Just know that I like what’s underneath too and it’s OK to share it with me.