A friend noticed today a seemingly peculiar habit I have picked up in the last 10-11 months. It’s not something I had done before the stresses and changes in my life. To be brutally honest, I don’t even know when I started it, but I am keenly aware of what I am doing.
You see, I picked up this habit of taking a small black stone out of my pocket and tracing the ridges on its surface. Many times I do this with my thumb, tracing the laser-etched pattern and native American symbol of a hunter in the middle of the pattern. I don’t do it because of some symbolic connection, it’s really something that seems to calm me. It takes the place of the clenching muscles in my jaw or the involuntary tapping of my foot.
There’s a reason I carry this and hold it in my pocket every day, though. I bought this stone, but not for myself. Some years ago, after first moving to Sacramento with Andrea, my late wife, and the four kids, I was sent to a conference of other investigative journalists. The conference was held by the Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, in Phoenix, Arizona, at a resort that had originally been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It had a deep Art Deco look and had the history of housing President FDR, and maybe every president since then. It was a great joy to meet a number of other journalists I knew and wanted to reminisce with. I couldn’t help but wish I’d taken Andrea with me, though, because of how much she would have enjoyed just being at the resort, hot as it was. (105 that week. Who puts a conference in Arizona in June, by the way?)
When I went to the IRE conference that year, Andrea wasn’t particularly pleased, I have to admit. When she finally warmed up to the idea and accepted it she asked that I bring her a little something back. Now, before you get too angry or confused here, I didn’t just bring back a rock for her. No, I had other gifts that I picked up as well. The rock, though, was a small token that I thought might bring my wife some peace. She had felt some depression and began to think about yoga and other methods to calm her thoughts.
However small the stone, the thought and story in the packaging said it was a thing that was hoped to give just that peace. I didn’t buy it in the thought that it was a serious piece of magic or spirituality. I did think the thought may bring her some peace or a smile once in awhile upon looking at it. To be honest, until about eleven months ago, I thought it had been lost, given to one of the kids, or simply thrown away.
When I moved into the rental home, though, I started to unpack the clothes and other items we’d moved into the house. When I opened the box containing Andrea’s old jewelry I thought it was simply the odds and ends of old earrings, the occasional piece of Tiffany silver. I knew her wedding ring was in there. The pieces I anticipated were all there. But when I found this little black velvet bag, I had no idea what it was. Inside, though, was that stone. The small, flat, polished rock that was black as pitch an had only these small grey lines, a circular pattern etched into it. I was a piece I thought she’d taken as a joke gift – though that was far from my intention, I wanted her to take it as serious – was still there. She’d taken it as the piece of hope I’d intended it to be.
I don’t know if Andrea used it or carried it, but I’d like to think she did. When I got the stone I started carrying it in my pants pocket. I find myself tracing the channels in its surface. I think about her and the fact that I gave her this polished black piece. Sure, the pattern is probably laser-etched. There’s no Navajo or Butte tribal elder using a chisel and finishing hammer to etch this into the stone. I’m loathe to find where it was made for fear it’s a Chinese Native American rock, but I carry it still.
It’s not the piece itself that makes the difference. It’s the way we respond to it. There was no reason for Andrea to keep that stone. There was no cause for her to even think that it was a true or thoughtful gift. I wasn’t being flip when I bought it, I just thought it might be something she’d like to carry with her. It’s silly, sure, and it’s not like I gave it too much more thought than hoping it would give her a smile. But give her a smile it did. I saw her look up and for the first time in awhile the bright twinkle was in her eyes again. Sure, she’d smiled in the few months prior to the gift, but not the radiant, sparkling smile that flowed from her whole face. She’d give the Charlie Brown one-line smile for fear her palsey was too severe and embarrassed of her face, something I vehemently argued was more than a little untrue. If nothing else, other than the few minutes smile this rock gave her, it was worth paying the gift shop who paid some guy with a laser lathe to make it.
Finding that stone in June of last year gave me some peace. Now, in the darkest parts of my days, when I think about or write about her and begin to find tears or heartbreak in the day, I reach for it. I trace the ridges and imagine the days she might have done the same. I thank her for keeping it and maybe it made her smile just a little bit more.
It’s a good day when I don’t need it much. But even then, I get more peace than I ever could have contemplated from the ridges on a stone.