Dotty is a corporate lawyer; I’m a freelance writer and a writing coach. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat; she’s a conservative Republican. In certain lights, she resembles Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Even as she walks her dog she is exquisitely turned out — earrings, clever shoes, a multitude of carefully put together ensembles. My look leans more towards late-60s funk — faded jeans, baggy tees, and a pair of fur-lined Merrell clogs that have seen better days.
We are gardening neighbors, dog walking neighbors, neighbors who wave hello from each other’s lawns. For twenty-one years we inquired after each other’s growing children and discussed the warm summer or cool fall.
No one would have mistaken us for friends.
But one day last week, I was out walking my mini-Schnauzer and spotting her, stopped to say hello.
“Everything good?” I asked, expecting the usual innocuous reply. Instead she gave a little crooked shrug, sighed, and–to my complete astonishment — started to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized. She dabbed her eyes. And then she started to speak. Her children were about to leave the nest — Kevin this year, Rachel the next. She had found a cyst in her breast (which turned out to be nothing); she had developed acid reflux in her throat. She had a suspicious mole that the doctor wanted biopsied, and she had started having terrific panic attacks. She felt, she said, as though she was sinking, then going through a long, dark tunnel where everything was black. She worried that she hadn’t spent enough time with her children while they were growing up; she worried that she had picked the wrong career. She was 53 and life suddenly felt more fragile than she ever recalled. She couldn’t seem to stop crying and she was so sorry that she was burdening me. She waved a thin hand before her eyes.
I stood there, shocked. Not so much by her news — which was a lot at once — but about why she was telling it all to me. You must understand — I had always seen this woman as unbreakable, inviolable. Her façade was so careful, so tailored. She was the sort of person you didn’t muss; she was the sort of person who never required therapy. Not to put too fine a point on it — but I had always viewed her as the complete opposite of me. Cursed with bi-polar 2 disease and type 2 diabetes, I was often depressed and anxious. I worried endlessly about my choice of career. My kids had left for college and jobs a few years back and there were days when I worried that I hadn’t spent enough time with them and worried about what my life’s purpose was to be going to be. I often stayed up late into the night, running over my faults – real and perceived. I’d spent years talking about all of this in therapy.
But standing on my driveway with Dotty, I realized that wasn’t the woman she saw. She saw – what? A stable, steady, and reliable neighbor. Who bragged about her children and had a secure marriage. Who took vacations to Maine and the beach; who had friends in the neighborhood. I stood on the driveway and thought: You reach a period in your life where you think you can predict things, and your life becomes predictable. You might chafe at it, but it offers a sense of security. But sometimes, you can be so very wrong.
I drew in a deep breath, stepped towards her and drew her into my arms.
“Dotty,” I said. In my hold, she felt as delicate as a bird. “Why don’t you come to my house for tea?”
“Really?” she asked. “I’d like that.”
And so on that Thursday, Valentine’s Day, she came bearing pink tulips and a card. Over herbal tea and chocolate chip cookies, she sat at my kitchen table and we talked. Not about roses or the weather or politics. We talked about our hopes and fears. We shared our fear of dying and our sense of the world as a fragile place. My husband’s heart attack seven years before; her fear of being alone without her children. Our hopes for finding new outlets – we talked about going bike riding together in the spring and taking a yoga class. We laughed a bit; she cried some more. And when the cookies were gone and the tea was drunk, she stood and reached towards me for a hug.
When I opened the card she had brought later that night, I read what she had written. “Thank you so much for listening,” she wrote. “I don’t know how I might have gotten through without you there.”
When I look through my office window, her house appears the same. Her shutters are painted where ours is peeling; her home is groomed where ours is slightly overgrown. But now I know that inside those walls there lives a human being, who is going through the sort of rough spot that all of us go through from time to time. A woman I can talk to, a woman I might call a friend of mine.
Irene Raymond Rush blogs at http://www.dlife.com/diabetes_resources/experts/ilene_raymond_rush/ilene_bi and http://asweetlife.org/author/ilene/