Monday, June 22, 2015

The Amazing Kindness of Strangers

In my March 22 post, A "Micro-moment of Positivity Resonance" I promised you another story of a wonderful collision where I connect with total strangers and come away feeling happy and filled...this is it!
Last January while I was in New York I eagerly went to see the play Constellations  with Jake Gyllenhaal (not a bad-looking guy) and Ruth Wilson (whom I’d been admiring on Showtime’s series The Affair).  Only 68 minutes, this play skipped and hopped between past, present and future throughout the “multiverse” as the Playbill proclaimed  though I confess I hadn’t a clue.

Interestingly staged and meticulously choreographed, the swift-moving conversation between the beekeeper (he) and an astrophysicist (she) freeze-framed every few minutes.  It was quick, complicated and witty, and you really had to pay attention to keep up.

I was thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Deep in to this not-so-long production, Ruth Wilson’s astrophysicist announces, “I have glioblastoma.”  

The words were like a gut-punch to my abdomen.

I had just come to Manhattan to attend a dinner marking the two-year anniversary of the death of my 62-year-old, full-of-life sister-in-law  from glioblastoma.

For those of you who don’t know this disease, it’s brain cancer and scarcely 7% of the people who contract it survive it.  Robin was not one. [Beau Biden just died of it. Ted Kennedy was felled by glioblastoma.]

From the moment the actress uttered, “I have glioblastoma” I no longer saw the play.  I only heard the words and felt this visceral emotion radiate out from my belly.  

I felt sick.

I quietly sobbed inside, sucking in my cries, trying not to disturb the people on my right and left.  I was holding it all in until the play ended.  Then it was over.  The lights went up and a voice-over said there would a talkback.  "If you plan to stay, please move as close to stage as possible" the loudspeaker boomed.

For me this meant carefully standing up from my seat in the steeply-pitched-rear-mezzanine row, inching my way to the exit, down two flights and toward the stage.  I saw an empty spot  fourth row, one in from center aisle.  I remember breathing deeply, exhaling slowly, and trying to calm my shaking body as I sank into the seat with my big coat piled on top of me.

Before the actors came onstage, the young moderator was capably engaging the audience in a conversation about what they’d noticed, liked, questioned, about the production.  Then Jake and Ruth appeared and sat on two folding chairs close to the lip of the stage.  The moderator (with two admonitions: no pictures and ONLY questions about their work in this play) fielded questions from the audience and the actors answered genuinely and attentively, their trained eyes scanning the audience that had stayed behind.   

Then I raised my hand.  I spoke directly to Ruth Wilson describing my initial experience watching the play and how it changed for me after her pronouncement, and the connection to my sister-in-law’s death.

Immediately, Ruth looked at me and said, “I felt the same way when I first saw the play in London.  It started out funny and kind of a head-thing and then I got gut-punched and the play shifted and it became a heart-thing…” and I remember she kept looking at me directly and talking to me about how intense a play it was to do.  I told her that some of her dialogue was verbatim what Robin had said, about not being able to work anymore and having to leave a job she absolutely loved, and how she would know a thing but couldn’t get the words out, couldn’t say what she meant and the frustration she had with that.

The whole time (which probably was only three or four minutes but seemed much longer) I was physically shaking and fighting back tears.  I mumbled something about “Job well done.”  The moderator closed the talkback, thanked everyone, and requested that people leave quickly as they had another show to do that evening.

As people rose and pushed past me with all their winter gear, I found I couldn’t move. I was just too shaken up.  I came into that play with a certain expectation of entertainment and enjoyment and through sheer coincidence it brought me up short and forced me to feel the loss of my sister-in-law.  Feel the sadness of being in New York but not being with her.  Feel the emptiness of the holidays just past without her seasonal exuberance.  Feel the loneliness of dealing with my mother-in-law without Robin's commiseration.  Feel the foreboding of knowing I’m now the age she was when she died.

Sunk in that melancholy, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and the voice of a woman in the row behind me softly saying as she leaned near, “I am so sorry about your sister-in-law.  That must’ve been hard for you to deal with during this play.  I got so much out of the talkback; I didn’t understand that she was dying.  I missed that completely!”

“Thank you,” I said as I turned my head and saw a woman with gray hair like mine whom I judged to be slightly older, maybe sixty-nine, and then next to her, a man kindly asked, “Would you like to go for a drink or something?  A cup of coffee or a glass of wine?”

In the void suddenly a connection.

“I know I can’t have any coffee; my ulcer’s going ballistic at the moment.  I just feel so shaky.  I can’t seem to get up.”

“Well that’s alright,” the woman said, but the usher came down to our row and firmly asked us to vacate as they were waiting to clean the theatre, so I stood up, put on my coat and braced myself to trudge up the aisle and out into the freezing cold.

“Where do you have to go?  I’m Janie and this is my husband Vincent.”

“Well, I was planning to go to an exercise class further uptown at the JCC and but that's not until 7:15.”  It was about 3:45 pm at the moment. 

“We know where the JCC is,” she said firmly as she steered me out the theatre door.

“I could go to a friend of my sister-in-law’s around Columbus Circle.  I told her I’d text if I wanted to stop by but,” I hesitated not knowing what I felt like doing or even could do without falling apart at the seams.

I cropped me out of this shot :)
“You should get a picture,” Janie said as we walked in front of the people waiting at the stage door.

“Well, I was thinking that too but they said, no photos and now it’s too cold to wait.” But the stage door opened and out stepped Jake Glyenhaal making his way along one side of the crowd, signing autographs, posing for photos, and as he got to the end of line and was about to cross over to the other side I said aloud, “Oh I don’t know if I can get a shot with him,” and he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Oh yes, you can” and I said something stupid like I wasn’t sure my arm was long enough for a selfie, but then I pressed the button and sure enough got this shot, and off he went.

“Well that was great!” Janie smiled, “Now you have to get a shot with her!” but the guy on crowd control told us she’d already come out and gone back in, so we knew that wouldn’t happen.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stop and get something?” Vincent asked.

“Honestly I don’t know what I want.” I said dejectedly so they took me in tow as we headed for the subway and we walked and talked and got on a train and changed at Columbus Circle.  As we exited the subway car one of them said, “Would you like to come home with us?  Have a cup of tea; pull yourself together before heading on?  We live very close to here, just another stop away.”

Suddenly I stood still and just looked at them. Looked at them with astonishment and perplexity at these two individuals who didn't know me from Adam.

“I can’t go home with you.  I’m an emotional wreck!  I’m like a stray dog.  I can’t just go home with you.  It’s Saturday afternoon  you must have better things to do!”

Janie looked at me and said, “No, we’re free until later tonight.  It’s no bother.”

Vincent looked at me and said, “She’s a therapist, she’s used to these things, it’s no problem to come home with us. Come home with us!”

I looked at them both, thinking how lonely I was for a connection and how crazy this was but I simply said, “If you really mean it, I could use the company.  I’d love to come with you.”

And so we went.  Changed trains, went another stop, left the subway and entered their apartment filled with things of beauty and most of all, their openness to letting me spill my sorrows.  Janie and Vincent sat patiently as I told them about my past, my present, even divulged my difficult decision to separate from the life I’d been living for 30 years.  I spilled it all.  They listened caringly and patiently; gently shared their thoughts, their advice, their encouragements.  Slowly my heartache lessened and I felt lightened from the weight of my grief and sadness.  Hours later (refusing their offer to stay to dinner!) finally I left  stuffed with tea, smoked salmon, cheese, crackers, wine and so, so much more.  

I don’t know if it was God, my sister, Divine Intervention, or simply the serendipity of the moment but I felt lucky, lucky, lucky.   A guardian angel bestowed upon me these two charming, compassionate, wise, and generous strangers who took me in, gave me comfort and support, and in three hours, filled me with the emotional sustenance I was craving.    

Amidst the January snow and the cold and my deep loneliness, the constellations aligned and the universe sent me exactly what I needed  the utterly amazing gift of their friendship. 

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