If I could fit out a small, portable chapel that I would push like a handcart, it would be a useful thing. Still, the sacred space makes itself apparent, flows down around us and encloses us when we must call upon God for shelter.
As I left work today, I passed a woman who was seated in a chair just beside the subway turnstiles. She seemed to be hyper-ventilating, and a small cluster of Transit Authority employees surrounded her. Perhaps she had fainted, perhaps she was lost. I had a feeling that their problem was about to become my concern. One of the guards offered to walk with her down to the train. I was just a few yards ahead of them, and he escorted her onto the car where I was seated. She took the seat behind me.
Then she started to cry.
It was more than crying. It was wailing, and praying. She was in hijab, and she was calling out in Farsi. As the doors of the car closed and the train started to move, I asked her if she was ill, if there was something I could do to help. Two young Egyptian girls, also hijabi, sat across from her. I pieced together that she was overwhelmed with the news she had just received that her father had died. She had been at work in the airport, a family member called her, and she was on her way home to tell her household.
What could be done? I could not reassure her; her father was dead, it was terrible news, and no empty consolation would mend that. I held her hand, and patted her shoulder. I told her I understood, that it was the saddest news one could hear. She cried, she wailed, and she prayed. The two Egyptian girls tried to comfort her, hold her other hand, and pray with her, but they did not speak Farsi, and told her in English to be a strong Muslim woman, that Allah could hear her prayers.
She told me what a fine man her father was, that now she was sure he was with Allah, that he was receiving the reward for his faith. I agreed with her, not because I knew, or even believed in the same way, but because that was important to her, to think of her father as a man of great faith, who God loved.
Grief cannot be stopped. Once it starts, it is as inexorable as the tide. It must run its course, the tears shed, the words said, the prayers prayed. It is like labour, one friend told me, and to try to circumvent it will harm all those involved.
I knew which train station she needed to exit at, and the girls were going the same way. I walked her to the door of the car, and made sure she was safe. The girls would see her to the bus. She thanked me for my care and support. I hadn’t done anything but make sure she reached her destination, and held her hand, and murmured soothing words that really didn’t matter in content.
Tourists and other passengers looked at me with curiosity. “Her father just died,” I explained. “She got the news while at work.”
They had watched this noisy and dramatic scene with some alarm; they were all right with having me take charge of the scenario. Two women sitting together, probably sisters visiting Chicago, thanked me for my intervention and praised my Christian compassion. The man in front of me said, “I’ve learned something from you. You were so kind.”
In that loop of eternity, there were four of us caught in a vortex of grief and prayer, all of us women, all of us traditionally dressed. The Afghani woman crying out her loss was simply dressed for work, and covered with a beautiful red scarf. The two Egyptian girls, delicate, big-eyed as icons, and graced with glowing, caramel skin like the light of sanctuary lamps, wore elegant silks. I was in my plain black skirt, uniform shirt, and a black kerchief folded and pinned as a short veil. We were four women of faith, at a crossroads. We did what should be natural to women, and entered an ancient relationship, of comforting the bereaved, and praying out the grief.
It was a blessing to minister in that difficult situation, to be allowed inside the curtained enclosure that is hijabi. It did not matter that I am Christian, or that they were Muslim. We were all merely human, merely women, at a time when one woman needs another.