She smiles a lot.
I notice that first, sitting beside her in an overheated waiting room in the burn unit of a Pittsburgh hospital.
She is soft, and round, and matronly, and her soft face folds into countless creases around her eyes.
It’s a strange time to be smiling.
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m usually hurrying to head home but today I drive into the city, to meet an Amish family keeping a weeks-long vigil. On the drive I worry about traffic coming home and following my borrowed GPS because Pittsburgh is hard for me, I get lost nearly every time.
I worry that the nurses at the desk will intercept me; that the distant-sounding man on the phone didn’t really understand what I want; that I’ll add to the pain and suffering there or that they won’t say anything, leaving me with fragments to stitch together.
I wonder how I’ll find them without asking the nurses at the desk, the ones who refused to patch through my calls without first routing me through the media people.
I didn’t need to worry.
They are sitting in a glassed-in room off a main hall, obvious in their beards and covered heads and clothes from another era. No nurses are in sight.
I introduce myself, ask if we’re all clear on what I want to do? That I want to write a story about their family, about how they’re moving forward after the fire that killed a man and his son and injured another boy.
They speak in another language, then turn back. Today, yes, they will talk.
We sit down.
The injured child and his mother are in one of the countless doors that open off the hall and I won’t meet them. But the grandparents and the uncle are here, and they fill in the details.
The two men, they are quiet. Their beards distract me when they speak so I look at my notes instead. Seconds tick by in silence between my questions and their slow answers.
I have to force myself to slow down, not to jump forward with another question.
In the spaces, they tell the stories that make mine good.
But it’s her, the grandmother, who gives me something to really write. Her words come easily, quickly, though sometimes they are strange to me. She tells of neighbors bringing ‘eats’ to the funeral; of listening to children sing the day before the fire; of memorizing a beautiful little face hours before the burns that killed the four-year-old.
And she smiles. Only once do her words trail away into silence, pain rising to the surface, but she pushes it down and says it again: it is God’s plan. God makes no mistakes.
She turns back to me and smiles.
It’s my voice that shakes when I ask another question.
(You can read the story here.)