Ivy Jane was not like other little girls. With coffee-colored curls and rich mahogany skin, she had a magnetic way of commanding a room. Behind the beautiful glow of mischief in her dusty brown eyes was a silent and mystifying yearning. And like the sound of a classical piano, her soul swayed through the profound difficulties of her life, dancing to the melodies that only she could hear. Ivy was, quite simply, magic.
Of all the children in the Hematology/Oncology ward at the Children’s Hospital, where I worked, Ivy Jane was the most inquisitive. Even as she was fighting her own battle against a chronic and life-threatening blood disorder, she seemed to have a heart that would sense others’ emotions with the precision of Doppler radar. She would twirl through the pediatric ward’s halls, dropping coins from her piggy bank into the hands of whomever she deemed needy, and she would fret over the plight of the other children as if her own outlook was not equally grim.
Ivy had natural wisdom about her that far exceeded her eight years of life. She did not need to know what was coming next. She did not need to know her entire story. She was a dynamic, living, changing, growing soul riding through her own unique and beautiful journey of life.
Ivy taught me so much about myself in the short time that I had the privilege of loving her. She taught me that sensitivity is not a weakness to be overcome but a superpower to be embraced. She taught me that paying attention, noticing, feeling, and imagining was a badge of honor to be worn and wielded. In her orbit, I learned that to feel intensely is not a symptom of brokenness but a trademark of the truly alive and compassionate.
“It scares some people,” she would say in her lilting southern drawl, “but I can feel their feelings. You can, too, you know, Ms. Lori, you can too”. It took me many years to understand her message. I always wondered about the strange tendency I had to imagine crumbling insides and splitting hearts. I could ever hear words unspoken and the echoes of lonely hallways. I feel everything all around me – all the time. It is a beautiful way to move through life, but some nights are oppressive, and the weight of other people’s emotions can weigh me down. But what feels like a heavy load to bear, I was reminded by sweet Ivy Jane, is a gift.
I have noticed that much of the world only wants the charismatic, bubbly me. This sensitivity and empathy thing makes people uncomfortable. But I am a person of sharp angles and imperfections as well. And to live in the fullness of God’s calling on my life means moving past the perfectionism that tethers my value to sets of unrealistic standards.
We live straddled between two worlds. One is polished and shiny on the surface, but it seems so disconnected from the more profound and more fundamental soil of our being. We get so caught up, that much of the time we look to live above the earth and not in it. When we live this way, so many of our gifts remain simple seeds—their potential unfulfilled.
Because the quality of the soil is often invisible, we can overlook and understate its import. Different plants need uniquely different soil to thrive and to survive. Uniformity is not good for the soul. After many years on this planet, I recognize that when we place a person in a given circumstance and they struggle to survive, no amount of grading, rating, and ranking, coaching, and scoring can match the power of merely changing the condition of the soil. But you must be able to look beneath what is seen to even notice.
Our job as leaders is not to perfect the seeds or to seek to gather more; it is simply to prepare the soil. Sometimes we get so busy looking for just the right seedling that we forget to till the garden so that when the seeds arrive, they have a place to grow. Seeds do not matter if the soil is not prepared.
Sweet Miss Ivy Jane did not live to see her ninth birthday, but she was one of the most beautiful songs that history has ever recorded. The dark night of her death did not stay forever, because the morning had something to say. Ivy loved what existed in the shadows. She was drawn to the muted and marginal, but she was colorful, rebellious, and free-spirited. And her vibrancy, her deep capacity for empathy, and her inexplicable ability to calibrate the soil most assuredly left a mark.