One morning, I was shopping with a slight, older woman with curly, shoulder-length grey hair. She was the only participant in the pantry that day, and some of the pantry volunteers and staff came over to say hello and ask how she was doing. She looked tired and sad, with her arms hugged tightly across her chest.
I handed her some chicken soup, and she accepted it. “My daughter might eat that. She doesn’t really eat much these days,” she said. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me her daughter had been suffering from cancer and was getting sicker. As we stood there and listened, she poured out her concerns about her daughter, her heartache at watching her daughter struggle through her lowest points, and her amazement at the strength her daughter was often able to muster to get out and spend time with people. “She’s too stubborn to die,” this woman said and laughed sadly.
This wasn’t the first time our participants have talked with me about their health struggles or the illness of family members, but somehow this woman’s story tugged on my heart more than usual that day. The woman only seemed worried about her daughter, even though she had every right to complain about herself and how her own life was affected. One of the most amazing things to realize as an outsider to this region is that family is a big deal here. Although there are some exceptions, family members—moms, brothers, aunts, grandparents—are the people who you value most in life, the people you spend the most time with, the people who “have your back” when things go wrong. It’s like a built-in safety net, a group of people to surround you and hold you when things go wrong, to love you no matter what.
I followed the woman into the parking lot, and helped her load her groceries into the trunk of her car. After everything she had said, I felt as if I had been struck dumb: really, what words can you say to someone suffering so much? Still, I felt like I needed, somehow, to communicate the impression she made on me, how touched I was by her courage and selflessness. I gave her a hug and said the only thing I could think of to say: “I hope I’m like you one day”.
I came here expecting to serve. I came here expecting to see poverty and I hoped that I would be able to make a difference in people’s lives. But I never expected to come here and see people who are quietly living out answers to all of my most philosophical questions about the meaning of life. I didn't expect CAP to be such a classroom on being human. But then again, service has a way of shattering all your expectations.
Janet Mostrom is a long-term CAP Volunteer serving as an AmeriCorps Food Pantry Caseworker at CAP’s Grateful Bread Food Pantry. She is a member of Rockcastle Community and is a 2013 graduate of the University of Notre Dame.