You are a busy woman. You have a lot of people to love, a lot of people counting on you, a lot of entries on your “To Do” list. Your iPhone announces it’s time for you to make your weekly visits, so you drive a little too fast in order to meet others with lives and stories and calendars pretty much like yours.
You’ve decided to make these weekly visits together, so you carpool and chit chat the fifteen-minute drive away. There is slushy brown snow everywhere, making for a longer drive: you turn on the heated seats in the subfreezing temperatures. You are all a bit frazzled from the day, for you are busy women. You have a lot of people to love.
You exit the highway, mindful to lock your doors and keep purses out of view. You drive by signs you can’t read, restaurants serving food you don’t recognize, and all ages of pedestrians. The windows in the car are icing over.
You are heading to a friend’s apartment, one that takes you down a handful of stairs to reach the front door. At the bottom of the stairs, you and your friends discover three inches of water, along with plastic milk crates someone has upturned in order to make stepping stones to the front door.
You wondered how your friend, an aging diabetic, stepped over these stones wearing her long, flowing jilbab. You wonder that the water hasn’t frozen into a miniature ice rink. The apartment, adjacent to the furnace room, has always smelled strongly of gas. The addition of the standing water has surely made the apartment uninhabitable.
You are relieved not to find your friend at home. You call. She answers, happy to hear from you, but unable to tell you “I’ve moved,” at least in English, and you don’t speak Somali. You picture her talking to you on her flip phone, fitting the top part of the phone into her hijab and then letting it hang there like she always does. “Sook, sook,” she says, “sook, sook.” A phrase you know: “Wait, wait.”
You wait in the cold with your friends. After hearing a flurry of chatter on the other end, you meet eyes with the others. A neighbor, who can speak a bit more English, has been handed the phone. “Move, move,” she says. You think you hear the words “new apartment.” You thank her and ask her the address, but she doesn’t understand. She says they are close by.
You say, “I’m wearing an orange wool coat. Can you see me?” You make your way between parked cars out into the slushy street, scanning the surrounding apartments and turning in a circle, as if surrendering.
You see each other. She is standing outside in the cold, gesturing. You and your friends walk a block or so and hustle into the warmth of her new apartment. There are warm kisses for cold cheeks, hugs, and shoes piled at the door. You add your boots to the pile and all sit down, cross-legged on the rug. You and your friends compliment the new apartment while she flies to the kitchen and brings out a tray with bottles of water for each of you.
You have the same conversation you always have. There are only so many words. You ask about her family. “Good. Good. All good.” You ask about her health. “Blood sugar,” she says, and shows you her prescription bottles. You talk a little about your own families and the other Somali friends you have in common. You ask her how her reading is going. “Good. Good. All good,” she says.
But conversation comes haltingly for one who was denied the opportunity to read or write in her own language, let alone someone else’s. You take in the prayer rugs, Arabic letters, and gold-gilt pictures of the Ka’aba on the walls. The unsteady words fall to silence.
“Sook, sook! Sook sook!” she says. She jumps to her feet, grabs boots and a coat, and is gone before you have a chance to speak. You didn’t think she could move that quickly.
Suddenly alone, you look around at your circle of friends and laugh. She must’ve gone to get the neighbor again to help with translation. You chit-chat amongst yourselves about your own lives, your own schedules. Conversation flows easily again, even in this dim, incense-scented room.
It is increasingly awkward for you to be in this apartment without its hostess. Five…ten…fifteen…twenty minutes go by. She is still gone. You are busy women with a lot of people to love, your children will be getting off the bus soon, and so forth. At what point do you leave? How would you lock the door?
Through the front door she comes, at length, bringing the frigid temperatures into the room with her. She is carrying a disposable metal tin, steam escaping its edges. Cumin and curry signal your senses before your minds can comprehend her gift: she left you, walked several blocks to the nearest Somali store in sub-freezing temperatures to buy hot food for you, and walked back again.
You think of her sacrificial love as your hold the warm sambusa in your hand, and wonder over the pocket money she spent on you. Is it the curry bringing on tears or your prayers, as you ask God to help you love others as she has loved you just now? For she is not a busy woman and she doesn’t have a lot of people to love.
Holly Sprink received a B.A. in English from Baylor University and an M.Div. from George W. Truett Theological Seminary. She is the author of Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness and Spacious: Exploring Faith and Place. She enjoys the adventure of life with her husband, Matt, daughter, Lucy, and son, Mikias. You can probably find her somewhere in the Kansas City area writing, knitting or connecting cross-culturally.