That afternoon, I read the news about Aleppo.
I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. There are unsung heroes all over the world, just as there are in Aleppo, rescuing children and standing up to danger and carrying on despite the near-impossible conditions. Their strength and bravery humble me, and their suffering breaks me.
Hours later and worlds away, I’m standing in the checkout line with a pumpkin pie and can of whipped cream. We drive to the apartment, hoping they understood and are expecting us. From outside, we can see the light shining out through the curtain, casting shadows like crosses on the street below.
The door swings open seconds after we knock.
Hello hello! How are you? The mother’s English is improving everyday, she smiles and greets us warmly. Two little ones are running circles around the coffee table while the two older war on minecraft. We are well, we smile at everyone. How are you?
The pie is a mystery. Chocolate? No. We show them pictures of pumpkins, the same mysterious vegetable we asked them to gouge a face into only weeks before. We let them cut generous slices, place them on leftover Happy Birthday paper plates. The children are unconvinced (although they love spraying the cream into high piles and decorating it with M&Ms. Obviously our sugar-cookie decorating lessons made an impression.)
I sit there watching one of the littles sneak around, licking up all the whipped cream he can find, thinking we don’t see. The father is telling us about his job at an industrial bakery. His wife and daughter are giggling on the couch, showing me clips of The Voice: Ahla Sawt, trying to convince each other to dance.
And here we are. Wars rage on and heroes sacrifice and here we sit, giggling on the couch, tickling little tummies, trying to explain why Americans eat pumpkin pie. I don’t know why I get to be here instead of there, but tonight I feel thankful and incredibly privileged to know this family with a strength and bravery of their own.
As the evening winds to a close, they serve us steaming mugs of Iraqi tea and pull out photo albums, their only remaining memories of a family and a past which is now scattered all over the globe. The oldest girl sidles up close to me, hands me a pile of wrinkled class photographs, naming each of her classmates over and over like she’s afraid of forgetting even one.
Me and my wife, the father points to photos of their wedding day, obviously a day of feasting and celebration. They both look young and radiant in their wedding clothes.
This day, he goes on. 2003. This is the same day America invades Iraq.
They go on to show us photos from their engagement, their early married life, aunts and uncles and brothers and friends who are now thousands of miles away from Iraq, as they are. But my thoughts keep returning to that one statement. Who would have thought, over thirteen years later, they would be sitting here in this apartment, their lives intersecting with ours?
Now a new generation is growing up and getting married who will mark their dates with wars, with bombings, with flights and smuggling attempts and terrible separations. And I hear the words echo again in my ears:
“When we have something — maybe we don’t lock our doors tighter, but open our doors wider.
I preach it to myself again this year: Gratitude begins not in the moment that I mouth the word “thankful,” but in the moment my heart declares “this is grace. This is enough–and more.” It begins in the moments of prying the white-knuckled grip around my life, and receiving it open-handed, a gift flowing both directions.
It begins when I start each day with the knowledge that I have come from God, and I am going back to God. And so has everything and everyone around me.
Grace, indeed. Casting shadows like crosses wherever we go.