The note came down the table, surreptitiously passed from one hand under the tablecloth to the next, with the same feigned nonchalance and baited breath middle schoolers use. When it slipped into my hand from the teacher next to me, I cracked a sideways look down the table to see who the intended target was. My friend, sitting several people down from me, nodded her head once, firmly, to indicate it was for me.
I held it in my lap for a bit, not wanting to rouse the attention of our two workshop presenters, and a little embarrassed my friend had resorted to this. My phone was off, though, evidently leaving her no choice. I unfolded it bit by bit until I could put it on top of the table and mix it in with my notes to see what it said.
"WHERE ARE WE GOING FOR LUNCH???"
I smiled and rolled my eyes at her. We hadn't even gotten to the first morning break and her mind was already plunging into lunch. A woman dressed in a bright blue nun's habit with a polished wooden crucifix around her neck sitting on the other side of me glanced at the note. I pushed it away, discomfited that we'd been caught at something so juvenile.
My attention moved quickly back to the presenter as he said, "Write your philosophy of life in ten words or less."
My mind wrestled and struggled and finally I prayed I wouldn't be called upon to share as I wasn't satisfied with how mine sounded. The nun beside me possibly didn't pray that prayer, though, as she was asked to share hers.
"There's always a reason to wake up each morning," she intoned pleasantly in a soft, exotic accent. The presenter raised his eyebrows.
"Quite interesting, ma'am," he replied as he looked at her carefully with a nod. "Very interesting indeed."
It wasn't long before the session came to a pause.
"We'll see you back in 15 minutes, " the presenter reminded us. "Please don't be late!"
With that, we filed out as orderly as ants traveling two by two, all of us headed to the restrooms.
As is the case with most teacher workshops, the participants are overwhelmingly female, and the two stall bathroom was quickly overwhelmed as we lined up in a queue that snaked out the door.
I noticed the woman in the nun's habit behind me in line. She was long and slender, with rich, mahogany colored skin and teeth as white and lustrous as pearls. Her burnished wooden crucifix took on a soft sheen under the bathroom lights.
"That is a lovely cross," I remarked. "It is hand carved?"
"Yes," she answered as she nodded, a polite smile raising the corners of her lips. "Actually, my father made it for me many years ago. He spent almost a month carving it, and I was so happy when he gave it to me."
"He's very talented, " I told her. "Does he still do woodworking?"
"He's already passed away. He was killed before I came to the United States."
I inhaled. "I'm so sorry. That makes this piece even more special."
She looked for my eyes. "It truly does. You see, this is the only thing I have left of him. In fact, this is the only thing I have left of my entire family. I treasure it, " she ended with a warm smile.
Stumbling for words, I stuttered a little. "I, I, I'm so sorry. Where are you from?"
"I was born in Rwanda. I'm sure you heard of the troubles we had there, the awful times."
I nodded and involuntarily brought a hand up to my mouth.
"People we grew up with, celebrated holidays with, shared dinners with, people we thought were our FRIENDS...." she drew out. "They came one evening with machetes and, and..."
I mutely touched her hand to let her know she didn't have to continue.
She shook her head and shoulders as if to knock off the heaviness of the memory. "How I survived would take much too long to tell you in here," she explained as she looked around the bathroom. "For a long time after I found out my whole family was gone, even my cousins, aunts, and uncles, I thought there was no reason for me to live. I just couldn't see a purpose."
The line moved and we inched closer.
"But I had this cross, and I would imagine all the time and love my father put into making it for me. I would stroke it and wonder how I could continue. And I imagined him speaking to me."
She paused before continuing.
"And I could hear him saying, 'There's always a reason to wake up in the morning. You're breathing, you've been given a new day, so there's ALWAYS a reason for you to wake up. Don't waste it.' "