It was a Friday last month.
Not long after Crying with Strangers: Part 1 happened.
I meant to sit and write this down for you earlier, but then Christmas happened, and then that slow slide into summer holidays, and I’ve been bobbing along that stream of gentle days ever since, reluctant to get out of the water.
But the light is gold shards today and the sky an impossible blue, and we spent all day at the park and then in the garden, and my mind is so full of greens and blues that the only place to turn is the page to write.
It was a week or so before Christmas. One of those weeks that feels bordering on child mayhem with two kids insistent on jumping off surfaces for the most part of the day.
I decided to escape the house and have a cafe date. I loaded up my handbag with novels and journal and pens, set for a quiet break of nothing but my own thoughts for a spell. A reprieve from children who joyfully, irrepressibly fill every moment with voice and noice. A reprieve from a head that thumped too much with worry and pain, not of big things gone wonky, but a culmination of little ones.
I thought I’d go to the bookstore first. Start off this micro retreat with some solid bookshelf malingering. To get there, I had to manoeuvre by the cafe. But before I could go any further: there was my favourite seat. Open and ready for me.
I thought it was a sign.
So I shrugged my shoulders, left the book whispering for later, and slid into place.
The next table over, there was an elder woman. I notice as she tries to talk to the table on the other side. The women there smile and nod their heads, but don’t engage.
She looks over at me, and echoes the same line:
“Do we order here? Or at the counter? I’m not sure. I’ve just had a really shit day. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
I look over and up. Just as before, there was a decision to be made. When a moment unfurls with a stranger, do you choose it?
My heart had already been cleaved open a week or so before by a stranger. I knew the path to take.
I made eye contact. I smile.
I’m here for you, I try to tell her with my eyes. I’m open and ready for this.
I scoot over on the long bench seat to be closer to her. I show her the menu, and we talk about what’s best to eat. I show her how to order.
She orders, and she sits down beside me again. We laugh a little, and her eyes brim with tears.
“I’m sorry. I’ve really had a shit day. I’m sorry for swearing. I know old people shouldn’t swear, but I do.”
“You’re in the right place for swearing, I bloody love it,” I tell her.
“I shouldn’t be crying. But it really has been a shit day. My phone hasn’t been working all week, and I’ve been so anxious about it. And then I forgot my pin for my credit card. And maybe it’s just the season, but my husband died a few years ago, and I still miss him so much…”
She begins to cry, and I do to.
“Oh no! Now I’ve made you cry too!”
“That’s okay. That’s what other humans are for, isn’t it? That’s what we are made for.”
We hold hands, and cry about how hard shit days can be, and we do it together.
Her lunch comes, the one I (and Leslie Knope) recommended: pancakes with ice-cream and blueberry. We drag our tables together. I drink my chai tea and lemon pie beside her. We share lunch together, and I ask her to tell me her story.
And she does. She tells me the miracles and the tragedies of her eighty years. She tells me in vivid detail about the night her mother died when she was 10, and about the day after when she was put in an orphanage. She tells me the night dancing in a decrepit hall when she met her husband 50 years ago. She shows me photographs of him: the strikingly handsome young man in uniform, and him before he died: still handsome, thick black hair streaked with moonlight. “He drove me batty, you know. I was ready to kill him sometimes! But then he made me laugh again. It was a good life, with him.” She tells me the date of their anniversary, and the ways he tells her he’s still around, still loves her from the Great Beyond.
“I’m sorry for putting this on you…” she tells me, when she runs out of story. I tell her it was the best part of my day.
When it is time to leave, I tell her my name. She gasps “That’s my sister’s name! I can’t believe it!” She tells me hers, and she shares half of my sister’s.
I hug her when I leave. She curls her head on my shoulder.
Sometimes we are each exactly what the other needs.
Here’s to another year of miracle moments with strangers.