I was surprised when I entered the crowded establishment. None of the other independent bookstores had more than a trickle of customers, but Malaprops was hopping. A half dozen women were already sitting in the three or four rows of chairs that had been set up in an alcove near the busy beverage bar.
After shaking hands with a few of the audience and learning that many were midwives or doulas, I began my presentation as usual, introducing myself and my new book Arms Wide Open: A Midwives Journey.
I told how in the 1970s we thought the world was in bad shape, especially our own country. “There was the war in Vietnam which we protested. Eagles were dying of DDT. Two presidents and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. We were concerned about pollution and the profligate use of non-renewable resources by the developed world, while the third world starved… Still, in those days, it seemed possible to reverse all this to bring sanity and justice to this troubled planet. We felt we had power.”
“I look at the planet now. We are in more danger than we ever imagined. We have economic, environmental, and political crisis on every hand, yet still I have hope that if we each do our part we can survive.”
“Arms Wide Open,” I went on, “Is a book about innocence, survival and hope, one midwife’s story of motherhood and caring for mother earth.” The audience had grown to about thirty. I read a few chapters and asked if there were any questions.
A handsome man in the back row who reminded me of Denzel Washington, but was even better looking, raised his hand. He had one foot up on a stool and by the way he spoke I thought he might really be an actor. His voice was powerful and emotional without a trace of an accent, neither Southern nor African American.
“I came into the bookstore tonight,” he said, looking around at the other participants, “Didn’t know anything special was going on, but I’m glad I did. Your presentation gives me hope. We should never give up hope.” The speech was longer than that and quite eloquent. I thanked him for sharing and went back to the reading. A few minutes later I saw him leave through the front glass door.
I read a few more chapters from the book and when we were about to wind up, I noticed Denzel had come back in the room. (I doubt that was real his name, but it will do, for lack of another.)
“Can I say something more?” He’d moved up to the second row and stood at the end. “I came to town tonight to see someone I haven’t seen for a long time, my mother. When I was five our house burned down and my father, brother and sister were killed. I was spared without injury, but my mom had third and second degree burns on 75 percent of her body. They didn’t even try to take her to Duke Medical Center because they thought she would die, but she didn’t….
“I was raised, because of my mother’s disability, by neighbors and relatives; people who felt sorry for me. Called me poor little kid. But I never felt sorry for myself. My mother taught me that so long as our hearts beat there is hope.” Here he placed his hand over his left chest and patted it rhythmically and his voice broke.
I was stunned by his story, transfixed by his words, but the booksellers in the rear were getting restless. “Thank you,” he said. “This night has been very meaningful to me.” It was like we were a community, like we had known each other for a long time, but closing time was near and I wanted to be sure I had time to sign books.
“Thank you again, for sharing your story,” I summed up, trying to get closure. I placed my hand over my heart and bowed to him in all sincerity. Then with a smile, directed toward him and the whole group, I asked, “Do you know the title of my next book, the one I’m writing now?”
“Of course not!” I laughed. “How could you?” I turned toward Denzel with my hand over my left chest and let it move up and down as he had. “Sound of the Heart. That’s the title. Sound of the Heart.”