It seems appropriate that the last speaking engagement I had before leaving the U.S. for four months (spending a month in Europe as the artist-in-residence at an art school, then three months serving at a hospital in Togo, Africa) was in Portland, Oregon.
Portland was the place I moved in 2008 as I was recovering from my cancer treatments. The place where I met the Somali girls I ended up writing about in The Invisible Girls. The place where I found God again (or God found me?) after my life on the east coast fell apart. The place where I fell in love with the silhouette of Douglas Fir trees.
The downside was that because Portland is so dear to my heart, it was not only the last, but one of the hardest, places to say good-bye.
I had already said good-bye to my family the week before, which was hard because I’ve gotten used to seeing them frequently during my last year of traveling, and I will miss them dearly.
And now, I had to say good-bye to the rest of my people — my good friends on the west coast.
I had a farewell get-together with my friends on Friday night.
And then on Saturday, on my way to speak at a fundraiser, I met one of my very dearest friends for lunch. We sat at a sidewalk cafe on Hawthorne street and we lingered, stretching out our time together for as long as possible. I ran out of words to tell her how much I’d miss her and I just kept sighing.
Ugh. This is going to suck.
As I hugged her good-bye and we parted ways, my eyes filled with tears. Don’t cry, you’ll ruin your makeup, I told myself as I drove away.
I gave a talk at the fundraiser, telling the audience my story about my encounter with The Invisible Girls, and how my relationship with them began because I saw a little 3 year old refugee girl trying to sleep while standing up on the train because she couldn’t find a seat — and then I simply held my arms open, and she climbed into my lap and fell asleep.
I told them about the Invisible Girls blog, and then the book, and then how I was donating the profits from the book towards a college fund for the Somali girls.
I closed my speech with the quote by MLK, Jr:
“…the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’
“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
I invited the audience, who was there to support an orphanage in Congo, that the key to generosity is reversing the question. Instead of asking what will happen to us if we give until it hurts, we need to ask the question, what will happen to others if we don’t?
Then I walked off the stage. The room erupted in applause, which turned into a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed with joy — and with the ache of how much I’d miss Portland while I was abroad for four months.
I tried to navigate the sea of people so I could get back to my seat, but I couldn’t see a path through the crowd.
And that’s when I saw Eli, a 17-year-old guy with Down’s Syndrome, standing in the middle of the room, with his arms open.
I walked towards him.
He wrapped me up in the longest, strongest hug. And then he smiled at me and took my hand.
He led me through the throng of people, who were still on their feet clapping, and we made our way back to my table. He pulled my chair out for me and motioned for me to sit down. Then he bowed, and with a grin, he patted my shoulder and walked away.
For the second time that day, my eyes brimmed with tears. And for the second time, I chided myself, Don’t cry. You’ll ruin your makeup.
Only this time, I wasn’t crying because of grief. I was crying because of relief.
The night before the Somali girls moved from Portland to Seattle, 8-year-old Abdallah sat in the corner of a dark bedroom in their empty apartment crying.
I held her and brushed her tears away with my thumb.
“No matter where you go, I will always love you, and I will always find you,” I whispered in her ear. And over the past few years, it was true. I found them several times as they moved apartments in Seattle. And then I found them again after they moved to upstate New York.
As Eli embraced me at the fundraiser, I realized that love always finds us.
Love finds all of us.
Love finds each of us.
Love found me in my cancer treatments.
Love found the Invisible Girls on the train the day I met them.
Love found me through my family.
Love found me through my friends.
Love found me through Eli at the fundraiser.
Love found me.
And no matter where I go in my travels over the next four months — and for the rest of my life — love will find me.
Love will always find me.