One day a few months ago I was out and about, having a hectic day. My lunch date had cancelled, my doctor visit had not gone as planned, my husband was having a bad day at work, I was confused about some choices I had, and I had spent about two hours in Jackson’s classroom, reading and working math problems with a couple of kids who needed the extra help. It was a chaotic morning and by the time I realized I hadn’t eaten all morning, I was already hangry. I was on my way home to see what Sir Duke had destroyed in my absence, when I decided I would stop by the nearest restaurant and have lunch. It seemed like what I needed to do at that moment, so I quickly pulled into the nearest lunch spot which happened to be a Showmars in Midtown, right near the hospital.
I like Showmars. It is fast and clean, the staff is friendly and efficient, and they have a variety of choices. In fact, Jerimiah and I will often meet there for our “weekly lunch dates” when we just don’t know what the hell we want. This day I was feeling out of sorts, so I knew exactly what I wanted, comfort food, which for me means fried food. I walked up to the counter and ordered the chicken fingers. I paid, got my number and drink, and walked to a booth by the windows. It was a nice day, mid October I believe, and there were people sitting inside and outside. I sat my items down on the table, making eye contact with the woman behind me who was alone, though there were two plates on the table. I smiled at her and she reciprocated, though she looked preoccupied.
I walked into the bathroom. There were only two stalls and one was occupied at the time, so I went into the empty one. While I was in the bathroom stall, the occupied door opened and the woman went to the sink to wash her hands. I was in such a weird head space, that I didn’t pay much attention to the noises. I assume she unlocked the door, I assume her heels clicked toward the sink. I assume she pushed the soap dispenser and the water shot on. I didn’t really hear any of that though. I was so frustrated at myself for saying the wrong thing to the doctor, for sending an email out of frustration, and for not giving the kids my undivided attention, that I was berating myself as I finished up. In fact, it wasn’t until I flushed that I stopped and actually listened to what was happening.
The woman who had come out of the occupied stall was crying. At first I wasn’t sure what I had heard. I waited for the toilet to finish up its water cycle, then I tried not to move, tried not to breathe, and I put my ear to the crack at the door. That is when I heard the unmistakable sound.
If you have ever cried in public before, you know the sound. Your body, full of fear or grief or anger, is forcing this reaction on to you and you are not ready for it. Or more likely the people you are around are not ready for it, and you know this. So you try to make yourself stop. You try to look up and bat your eyelashes, you sniff hard, trying to stop your nose from giving you away. You dab paper towels at your eyes so you don’t smear your makeup. You wave your hands in front of your eyes. You close them, praying to whomever, whatever, to be rescued from these emotions. From this moment or this memory.
She was doing all of those things, I assume. I was still nervously hiding in the bathroom stall, wondering what to do. My first instinct was to open the door and take the woman into my arms. Just stand there and let her cry. But, I had recently been trying to stifle these emotional reactions with people, particularly strangers, because I don’t want people to be put off by me, and I am afraid I have put people off. So instead I stood silently, and listened. I listened as she pulled more paper from the machine, as she blew her nose, as she splashed water on her face. With each moment I grew more and more upset with myself, until I couldn’t take it anymore and I opened the door.
There, standing next to the trash can, her hands steadying her small frame on the sink, was a woman in a neat pantsuit, hair pinned back, make-up running down her face. When we made eye contact she immediately apologized. I took a couple of steps toward the sink and she stepped back to let me get closer. She grabbed more paper towels, and dabbed her eyes. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just washed my hands and kept my face down. Then as I reached for the paper towels the words just sort of came out of my mouth.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, meeting her eyes.
“No,” she said. In that moment I didn’t want to push, so I didn’t. I dried my hands. I should have made a step toward the door, but I didn’t. Instead I put my hand on top of hers.
Her name was Mary. Her husband of 42 years had just, that morning, passed away in the hospital a couple of blocks away. Heart attack. There was nothing they could do. Her daughter was waiting for her in the restaurant. I didn’t know what to say. She didn’t look at me to say anything. In that moment, I just had to listen.
They’d met in high school.
They had three kids and a lot of grandkids.
She doesn’t know who she will talk to when she has a bad day. She doesn’t know who will tell her it will all be okay. They had plans and he didn’t uphold his end of the bargain. Her daughter is busy. Her son is gone. So many years, so many miles, so many separations.
I just nodded and gripped her hands tighter.
I told her that I didn’t understand her grief.
She told me that was good, and that she hoped I never did.
She said she had to go. She said her daughter would be worried.
I watched as she wiped her face one last time. Then she grabbed my hands, tried to smile, and she walked out the door.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how long I had been in there, but I stood there for a bit longer. I didn’t want to go out into the restaurant. I didn’t want to see her daughter again. I didn’t want to see her. I was sad. I was sad for her and I was suddenly sad for all the people in the world like her. I was afraid. I never want to be in her shoes, but it is an inevitability. Inevitably, we all lose someone.
Eventually I made my way back to my table. My chicken fingers were there, but Mary and her daughter were gone. I sat down at the table and called my husband. He answered. I wanted to burst into tears, but instead I just told him that I loved him. That his day was bound to get better and that this low spot we were in, these changes we find ourselves fighting, they would all work out. I told him it would all be okay.
Then over the next hour I sat quietly, watching people walk in and out of the restaurant. I overheard conversations about hurricanes and hydrangeas. I watched an old man flirt with a young server. I smiled as a mother struggled with a child on her hip and a newborn in a stroller. I thought about this life, and how we live it. I thought about death, and how it scares us. I wished good thoughts for Mary. I realized, maybe for the first time, that we aren’t just here for one reason, with one talent or one gift, but that we are all here for a lot of reasons, buttloads of them in fact, but rescuing each other might be the most important.
As always, be kind.