Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lessons From a Mystery Woman


Happy New Year, my dear ones. I know we all have high hopes for 2014. Perhaps this admittedly strange story will point the way for some of you.


So anyway ... my feet were immersed in a fragrant bath of warm water, the massage chair was rumbling its way down my back and my headphones were feeding me “music for a pedicure”. Practicing a few deep breaths and dropping my shoulders, I began to feel the knots of tension loosen throughout my body.  I suspect sometimes that I hold on to the tension subconsciously to avoid losing control … of my emotions, my ability to function and think like an intelligent adult. I know that is bad for me, but on some days it is the only way to make it till bedtime.
 
Today, a Friday, I am taking my “day off”, a weekly treat I give myself while a home healthcare worker comes to stay with Tom,  my husband, who is an Alzheimer’s patient. Though I look forward to it each week, when the day actually arrives my anxiety climbs, as does his. He likes the lovely lady who comes to stay and always seems just fine when I get back, but now he understands that this is not an occasional visit but a regular, ongoing event and he displays some stress over it. I am not accustomed to purposefully doing things that cause him anxiety but I know, all too well, that I must have occasional relief from the pain of watching him fade away.

So on this particular Friday, my list of things to do begins with a pedicure. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I left off. A few minutes later, the salon door opened and a man entered pushing a wheel chair that held his mother, a woman I guessed to be about eighty. He said she would like a manicure and wheeled her to a station directly across from me.

I’m not sure what drew me to her (I didn’t want to stare) but I would go back to reading, then every few minutes find myself studying her. She had snow white hair in soft waves, beautiful skin, attractive and subtle makeup and a calm elegance about her that I just wanted to observe. Her clothes were simple but obviously high quality, especially a cape or shawl that appeared to be cashmere with a wide band of fur. She looked healthy, in spite of the wheel chair! I found myself imagining her in an oil painting, perhaps by Rembrandt, who would cast her in a diffused light, the background fading to black.

At some point I told myself to snap out of it. But a few moments later, I went back to subtly (I hoped) observing her. As I often do, in restaurants or airports, I made up her life story.  I decided that she was European (nothing about her appearance said American), from an aristocratic family, accustomed to her wealth, perhaps married to a diplomat or an international financier, but now widowed.
 
Too soon, my leg massage and toenail painting came to an end. As my nail technician led me to the drying area, I took a moment and walked across the aisle to where she sat. “Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t wish to bother you, but I just wanted to tell you what beautiful hair you have.”

“Oh my dear,” she said in a beautiful, French-accented soft voice, “how nice you are to say so. I’m celebrating my 97th birthday!” Her smile was genuine and warm.
 
I exaggerate only slightly when I say that I gasped in actual shock. I have rarely met someone who had lived so long and aged so beautifully.

She went on. “I’m living with my son and his family now, but I lived in New York City for many years. I miss many things about it but I am happy to be near my loved ones.” She held my hand in hers as she spoke and then added “But I’m glad not to be in New York right now.” We both laughed because the whole Eastern half of the country was under blizzard and brutally cold conditions. As I squeezed her hand, I said “It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. I wish you all the best in the New Year.” 
 
I slipped into a chair by the drying light. Her son was waiting in a chair just behind me. “You have a beautiful mother,” I said. He smiled. “She does the New York Times crossword puzzle, in INK, every single day.” He went on. “She was born in France, lived through WWII, and then came to New York. She is the happiest person I know!”
 
A few minutes later, I was back in my car ready to take on the next item on my list. But I sat there quietly for a moment and realized that, strangely, I felt emotional. I was grateful for that small incursion into a beautiful lady’s life.  But I also was aware that there was a message in this chance meeting. I couldn’t shake the experience. I told several people about it over the next few days.
 
I thought about the very few facts I knew (not even her name!) and yet how she seemed to me like an illustration, a lesson filled with reminders that I am often so close to forgetting. To be sure, In spite of her happy attitude and gracious manner, she has had her share of grief, lived through a terrible war and undoubtedly struggled with very real and painful experiences, as most of us do in the course of a long life.
 
Whatever her life experience, she has decided to be happy. She has chosen to welcome each day with enthusiasm and a sense of humor, things I have been terribly close to losing recently. Yes, I am over-simplifying in the extreme, but it was a reminder that every day is a chance to choose … to focus on the sadness and pain that is a very real part of my life … or to choose the small joys that are still possible, remembering all the years of love and partnership that we have shared for our first twenty years of marriage.

We are both changing in ways we would not have chosen. So far the “golden years” haven’t been anything to recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it to 97.  Still, today can be shaped, at least in part, by a willingness to be open to small joys and happy moments. I know carrying grief and sadness around can shape one’s life beyond repair. Tom will still spend most of his days obsessing over the smallest details, asking me to help find things he has ‘lost’ and I will weep for the darkness that is overcoming him. But the fact remains my attitude is a choice, often not an easy one, but still a choice.

I think of her as my “friend”, the mystery woman whom I shall surely never see again, and I thank her for reminding me to be grateful for what is good and fortunate in my life. Who knows?  Maybe it will help me regain some of my lost youth. It surely couldn't hurt.           

 

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