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  • Whitney Olson

The Tangible Weight of the Intangible

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.” The Things They Carried

I saw a high school student carrying The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien the other day. The book gave me pause to think about the tangible and intangible weight of the things I have carried.

If someone was to engage in “pocketology” with the bits and pieces I’ve carried, it wouldn’t be hard to surmise that I was a child of the 70s with my bazooka gum wrappers and Yo-Yo. Or that I was a typical teen with my driver’s license and keys. My pockets have always been the preferred method of carrying things. Not until I was well into my 40s did I finally take to carrying my ID and ATM card in a wallet, in a purse.

Through the milestones and episodes that have comprised my 53 years, the most significant thing I carried was a business card. The card lived in my front pocket for over 5 years. It had been washed, cried over, and worn to a fuzzy rectangle with round corners and no trace of ink. It easily could have been mistaken for a wad of dryer debris. For all of its unassuming presence, that card was the lifeline that helped me through some of my darkest moments.

I received the card on the day before Halloween day in 1992. I believe it was a Friday. Mostly, I remember how odd it was to be seeking help from a woman dressed as Raggedy Ann. It was one more detail in the surreal circumstances I found myself in. I remember waiting in the lobby surrounded by a cowboy, Barney, and a witch, wondering who thought it would be a good idea to surround the mentally unstable with people wearing costumes. It was another indication that I had lost it. I couldn't even handle Halloween.

Then I received the card and along with it a calm voice of confidence and reason. I wasn’t hopeless. There was a plan. There was that card when the plan seemed to be falling apart. The card and I eventually resumed my life and my responsibilities. We spent many dark hours during sleepless nights waiting for first light, waiting for proof that we had survived to take on another day. It never left my pocket. Sometimes, it was the quickest access to the phone number, but for most of those years, it was a reminder that someone had confidence in me, that someone understood, and that I was not alone.

About six years later, I received a phone call from the original owner of the card. We hadn’t spoken in 5 months. He was cleaning up old files in preparation for a move out of the area. He wanted to give me a referral name. He asked how I was. I had another baby girl I told him. He would have liked to have heard that news earlier he told me. I didn’t tell him about his card. It was still in my pocket.

I hung up the phone and felt shame. We had partnered on a journey. He and I had tackled my internal tug of war and, more often than not, I departed our sessions sure that I would never win. I left each appointment with my fist clutched around that tattered card. I never told him he had made a difference. When I finally emerged from that dark hole, I left his office with that card and never looked back.

After that phone call, I took the card out of my pocket and left it on my nightstand. I wondered how many thousands of cards he had given out in his career and I hoped that other recipients had done a better job acknowledging the impact of his help. Eventually, I placed it in a box in a chest.

About two weeks ago, I found myself wanting the security the card provided and I thought about how long it had been since our phone conversation. Curious, I Googled him. There he was - gray and older, just like me. Just like that card. It was enough.

Post Script:

I wrote this last week without ever intending to publish it. Two days later, I found out a dear friend had committed suicide. I dedicate this piece to all the card givers out there and the people who need those cards.


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