You Can Sit Here
Flimsy plastic plate in one hand and scalding hot coffee, dripping over the edges of a thin paper cup in the other, I scanned the breakfast room for a place to sit. Nothing. An introvert at heart, I considered taking my food back up to the hotel room where my husband was sleeping. As I deliberated that option, I heard Andrew’s voice in my head, "Why eat in the dark when you can meet new people?” The classic extrovert, Andrew always encourages me in this way. Good point imaginary voice of Andrew, good point.
I took a deep breathe and rescanned the room, this time looking for friendly people to sit next to.
On the left, there were a rowdy group of teenagers throwing biscuits at each other. No. In the middle was a long high-top table full of Asians. Ah yes, my kind. But they were all spread apart with single seats randomly placed tightly between them. They were also speaking Chinese. Then, I saw a gentle looking black woman sitting by herself at a small four-person table. She was the one.
I walked over and in my sweetest voice, I asked if I could join her. She smiled and said that she needed to save a seat for her husband but that I was more than welcome to join. Bingo.
For the first few seconds, there was an awkward silence that held the uncertainty of whether either of us should begin a conversation or not. We both knew that if we started one, we were going to, in a sense, have a breakfast together.
Perhaps many of you reading are thinking, “What’s the big deal?” but from my experience, these sort of situations happen all the time. We are all busy people with jobs, deadlines, and barely enough time for our own families. So often, we move through the world with heads down or headphones on, pretending that strangers aren’t real people with real stories. It’s easier not to talk to people, so we don’t.
This morning, I was going to see if we could connect in a real way.
“So, ummm… are you from around here or out of town?” I stammered.
“We’re from North Carolina,” she said sweetly. “We are here to celebrate my mother getting her doctorate at 84!”
She made it easy. From there, we pushed forth in conversation as her husband sat down. Their names were Ethel and Harold, both in their mid-sixties but looked as if they could have been 50. They spoke with an east-coast accent from growing up in New York, but they dragged their words with a Southern Drawl from living in NC for the past three decades.
Of course I had to ask about Ethel’s mom. Her mother has published three books and is the classic matriarch, setting an incredible example for her many grandchildren and great grandchildren. She proudly showed me pictures of the graduation, and I acknowledged Ethel for having big shoes to fill.
We laughed together about their spoiled granddaughter who was going to get toughened up by her other 7 boy cousins. Harold gave me advice on raising kids and teased me about needing to hurry up and have them already.
“You wanna be able to chase ‘em dontcha?” he said, smiling and gently punching me in the arm.
I asked about their own children, and they beamed with pride. But the conversation turned serious. One daughter just had twins yesterday, but they were very premature. Born 1 pound 7 ounces each. Not wanting to turn away from tough conversation just because it was tough, I slowed down and allowed whatever emotions to arise that did. They were worried sick.
Ethel showed me another picture, this time of her grandkids. I point out one heart-breaker with tight curly hair. “Watch out for that one,” I said. Harold grabbed the phone to look at it and sighed.
“Yeah, he’s a special one. He lives with us.”
Harold told me that the grandson walked into his father’s bedroom one morning and found him dead. He died of a heart attack at 38. The child’s mother was somewhat unfit to care for the boy, so they took him in.
Ethel told me they also raise foster children. One they got at age 7. The boy had already been in seven other homes. Everyone told them that the kid was trouble, but they wouldn’t hear it.
“I told him everyday that he was loved and smart.” Harold said. “We could bare the thought of him having to go to another home, so we adopted him." That child is now a man who has moved out and gotten himself a job as a prison guard.
“We have one more to go and we’re free!” Harold says, referring to another foster child.
“Yep, then it’s US time,” Ethel adds with a sassy wring in her neck.
All this time, I’m thinking to myself that these two humans I have come across are just incredible people. The love they have for one another after 45 years of marriage, love for their children, blood related or not, is so admirable. In 30 minutes of having breakfast with them, I learned about what’s possile at 84, the beauty of sacrifice, and the power of words. I felt privileged to have met them.
As they got up to leave, I could sense their gratitude for me as well. I thanked them for brightening my day and they thanked me for lending an ear.
I’m not saying we need to strike up a conversation with every person on the subway and their mom, but what I am saying is look up once in awhile. Take a little risk once in awhile. You never know who you’re going to meet and what they can teach you.