“Ain’t no gift, honey,” Sadie whispered. “Nobody knows better’n me.”
Olivia swallowed a sob and squeezed Sadie’s wide middle. Sadie caressed the girl’s hair to calm her. Olivia stepped out of the embrace and took Sadie’s hand in hers, lacing her thin, pale fingers through weathered, dark ones. Sadie crouched and gripped the little hand tightly, bringing it to her chest.
“Sweetheart,” she murmured, “don’t let nobody make you feel like you’re nothin’. You’re somethin’, Olivia. You’re someone. Cryin’ more than a mean little boy don’t make you worth less than him.” Olivia nodded weakly.
Sadie stood and kept hold of Olivia’s hand, leading her to the lawn chairs under the willow in the backyard. Sadie lowered herself onto one and Olivia crawled into her lap.
“Why does it hurt to care?” Olivia asked.
“I don’t know,” Sadie sighed, gazing up at the sky through the leaves. “Seems folks like you and me are the only ones left strong enough to care. Ain’t no one ‘round who understands anymore.”
Olivia eventually fell asleep. Seeing the poor child this way made Sadie’s heart ache because she knew just how Olivia felt.
An empath was a rare find in their town. Sadie knew everyone and she knew that they were few and far between. She saw it in Olivia when she was a toddler, waddling after butterflies. The boys around her wanted to catch them, dashing after anything that wouldn’t fight back. They pulled dogs’ tails and stepped on ants. Olivia, however, was unique.
When Olivia was seven years old, she lost her cat, Abigail. Sadie thought the girl would die of heartbreak. Her parents, friends, and especially the mean little boys told her it was just a cat. Olivia would always correct them. No, her name was Abigail and she was my friend. Sadie was by her side as she mourned. She never chastised or laughed because Sadie knew exactly what it was like to be told that her grief was uncalled-for. She knew how unfair it was and she knew Olivia needed someone to tell her that.
After a while, Sadie gently woke her.
“It’s almost lunchtime,” she remarked. “Want some pie?”
“For lunch?” Olivia giggled.
Sadie smiled. “Why not?”
As they sat at the table, dismantling massive pieces of pie, Sadie turned to Olivia.
“It’s hard, honey, to care ‘bout somethin’. But the way I see it, if you’re strong enough to care, you should.”
“How come some people don’t care?”
“Sometimes ‘cause they been hurt too much. Nobody starts out mean. The world gotta twist ‘em up and turn ‘em mean. Ain’t nothin’ we can do ‘cept care and care some more for people who can’t.”
“Is there something wrong with them?” Olivia asked.
“No, honey,” Sadie whispered. “They just weren’t strong enough for the pain that comes with carin’. Ain’t their fault.”
“Is there something wrong with us?” Olivia asked, gazing into Sadie’s eyes.
Sadie took her by the shoulders and looked earnestly into her face.
“Ain’t no gift, Olivia, carin’ so much. It hurts and it’ll keep on hurtin’. But ain’t nothin’ wrong with you. You’re the strongest little girl I ever knew. And you better keep carin’, because I ain’t gonna be able to care forever. So you gotta care for me and care for those mean boys who don’t know how. But if you stop carin’, honey… that’s when it becomes a curse.”
Olivia never forgot these words… not when her father shot a neighbor in a fit of rage for stealing from him, not when she left her town behind to go to school, not when she realized that mean little boys turn into mean men, and not when she discovered she’d married one. Through all this, she continued to care.
Years later, Olivia returned to her hometown, stepping out of her car and strolling down the street with a child’s hand in hers. She found the house. A smooth coat of taupe replaced the peeling, blue paint. She knocked on the door and a young woman opened it.
“Hey, honey,” she said brightly. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Sadie. She used to live here,” Olivia said.
“Ohh,” the woman murmured. “She passed away, dear. A few years ago.”
Olivia blinked several times, holding back tears.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Olivia,” she whispered, closing her eyes. The little girl clung to her leg as she struggled to calm her heart.
“She left something for you,” the woman said hurriedly. She ducked inside. Olivia heard her calling for her husband and bustling through the rooms. She returned, breathless, and offered Olivia an envelope. “Here.”
She accepted it, turning it over. Olivia was written with care on the front. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman called after her in sympathy.
Olivia sat down on a bench in the shade and the girl climbed into her lap. Olivia carefully tore open the envelope and pulled out a letter. She began to read.
“Read it to me,” the girl pleaded. Olivia smiled.
I hope you are doing good. I miss you.
Olivia paused to take a breath.
I been praying you are happy. I been praying you have a home and a nice family. If you got babies, say hello to them for me.
The little girl beamed. “Keep going!”
I aint never gonna forget you. I know you are doing good because you are making a life for yourself. You are kind and smart and strong and you can get through anything.
I want you to remember one thing for me, honey. Remember that kindness is hard, and empathy… Mr. Collins taught me that word, it means feeling what other folks feel… aint no gift. But it aint no curse unless you make it.
Olivia was crying now.
It aint easy being you and me, but I know you will make it through. Teach your babies kindness for me. I love you.
“That’s my name,” her daughter whispered.