Every week my daughter goes to physical therapy. The last 15 minutes of each session she rides a tricycle around the track at the rehab center.
Every week we pass the same faces as she pedals, mostly elderly patients completing rehab after strokes or surgeries or heart attacks, and they all smile as we pass. Some only smile with their eyes – their mouths aren’t quite able yet.
There is one who doesn’t smile. We pass her each week, over and over again as we complete our laps, her mouth never once curving in the slightest bit of delight as her eyes take in my pigtailed little three and a half year old, pedaling her heart out.
Three and a half years ago I would have thought this woman was just an old crab. I would have wondered what her problem was, just staring at my daughter like that. How could she not smile back at my bubbling girl?
Now I know differently.
I’m sure there is a chance that this woman is, in fact, just an old crab. I have a feeling, though, that she has learned the hard way that smiling takes too much work. Loss and misfortune and that empty feeling of life kicking you one too many times makes smiling each day a battle. She has lost that battle.
Soon after the birth of our triplets, after I held my daughter for the last time, saying goodbye to her in my arms, I quit smiling, too. I quit talking on the phone. I quit answering the door. I quit going to my favorite Starbucks drive-thru because I didn’t want to have to lie and say “I’m good” when they asked me the dreaded question, “How are you?”
But somehow I managed to plaster on a smile here and there. Before long it became a little bit easier. Not too long after that, it started to become a habit and, if I was lucky, I would not even feel a pang of guilt for the expression on my face.
I had a husband to pull me through, a daughter at home and two newborns in the NICU – every single one of them waiting, needing me to be okay. They helped me fight and dig out of the trenches of grief and come up for air.
So much more.
I think of that woman often. Every week as we pass her I smile, whether I’m in the mood to or not. She needs a reason.
I hope that one of these days her empty eyes will meet mine and refocus.
Life is much sweeter lived through smiling eyes, even if you’re blinking back the tears.
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