By Diana Mahoney
They are like pieces in a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Daily, we try to piece them together in an effort to capture and convey the chaos of emotion racing and swirling through our minds and hearts. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. People remember them, repeat them, build hopes and dreams around them, get their heart broken by them. Words. In contrast to the strength of emotion behind them, they seem flimsy in comparison. In syllables, we try to capture and convey what lies beneath our surface. Chaining meaning to sounds, trying to transmit hearts brimming with emotions to those around us.
Thank you. Two short words that seem to ring empty and hollow in nearly every situation that demands them. How can the same two words that are used in response to someone holding a door or ringing up your groceries be used interchangeably to express how you felt the time your friend, who had an exam the next morning, spent the night driving you hours to the hospital to see your grandmother the night she died. That’s right, they can’t.
That’s why I was surprised today when those two simple words came to be the rocking moment of my day. Which, if I’m being honest, I’m beginning to get used to. Being caught off guard and shook up daily in the most unexpected moments, by the least likely of people.
It was during the beautiful luncheon put out in Rock Hill, South Carolina where the infamous Friendship Nine Sit-Ins occurred that it happened. The lights had been dimmed and we were halfway through the documentary on Rock Hill that she walked across the room. Young and beautiful, the well-dressed African-American girl bent down and leaned her head in close to Joan Mulholland’s.
“I have to leave early, but I just wanted to come over and say thank you for making this life possible for me.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as Joan reached out and wrapped the young girl in her embrace.
“I love you.” Joan whispered into her hair. I felt my heart skip a beat. It was just such an incredibly beautiful moment. Suddenly it hit me. That this tiny, beautiful woman sitting next to me played a huge part of life as I know it. I gazed around the room at my fellow student riders and thought of the people that have played parts in my life up to this point. At their varying skin tones, of their diverse ideas, of their unique voices, of how much richer my life has become because they are in it. Of how much of this beautiful life I would have missed had this woman and those like her not stepped up and spoke out.
I feel like my “Thank you.” doesn’t cut it. Every time I see these incredibly courageous people, I want to convey how each and every day I am appreciative for the world they sacrificed so much for. The world I was lucky enough to grow up in, thanks to them. But somewhere deep down inside, I know that no matter how many times I say it, those words stand almost as a barrier in conveying the swell of emotion, gratefulness and indebtedness I feel I owe to each and every one of the original Freedom Riders. It is humbling to graciously accept this gift the Freedom Riders have given us. I can’t fit together words to say thank you properly. As the days roll by I find myself more and more in agreement with author Elizabeth Gilbert who reflects that, “In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”