An unexpected connection when I needed it most.
It is easy to judge, and we often hear the comment, “Stay in your lane.” I agree with stay in your lane if it’s not a one-way street. What I mean by that is there are so many times in our life that we miss opportunities. We are so focused on our one-way lane that the traffic coming the other way doesn’t seem to matter. But what if that lane of oncoming traffic wants to turn on a green light in front of your lane? Would you let them? I know it’s an “Amyism” and I’m a visual person, so with this example, I want to share a story of when I was really wanting to stay in my lane. Completely focused, not looking at this oncoming car that had every right to turn in front of me. I needed to look up.
After a meeting in New York one afternoon, I decided to head to one of my favorite spots in the city, the New York Public Library. There is no better place to put fingers to the keyboard, people watch and eavesdrop all at the same time. It’s beautiful inside and it’s one of those places that you should try to put on your opportunity list. And if not the New York Public library, go spend a hour or two in a library in your town. It’s a place that could tell so many stories, not only of the books on the shelves, but the people who spend time there.
I was firing away at the keyboard. Not to boast, but I got a solid A in my high school typing class, and even with my Brother typewriter, a graduation gift, my fingers moved across the keyboard like a pianist. As I was typing, I had a feeling that someone was watching me. I needed to stay in my lane. I had a few hours to pound out and finish a chapter I had been working on for weeks. The words were there, and I just needed to stay focused. I had my headphones on, and my usual Ren Hygge, or acoustic John Mayer playlist in my ears. I kept getting this feeling that someone was straining out of the corner of their eye to catch a glimpse of what I was writing. Now keep in mind my font is probably big enough for someone to see it if they were five blocks away on Park Avenue. I was getting annoyed. This was my time. The words were there, I was completing this chapter, no matter what. That’s what I kept telling myself.
I continued to pound away and turned up the volume on John Mayer’s, Gravity. I was working and needed to stay focused. Heck, this was the next bestselling book I was writing. But I have to be honest, I couldn’t help but look up on occasion at the teens canoodling…ok…more than that at the next table over. I realize the word “canoodling” probably isn’t a real word, like a Webster dictionary word, but I don’t care. I’m old enough to say what I want to say, and if you play me in Scrabble, canoodling will be worth points. I was desperately trying to stay in my lane. My one-way lane. But being a mom, I did wonder if their parents knew they were here? Was that a hickey on her neck? Okay…I’m not realizing that the woman next to me is watching me, no, actually staring at me, and the kids, don’t get me started… I might need to walk over…it’s so distracting…
Why is this happening right now? I need to focus. Stay in your lane, Amy.
Back to the woman next to me. The long wooden table that I was seated at was full. The ten chairs were taken, and fully occupied and I didn’t notice many seats available at any of the tables. The aromas from the different people just sitting at the table, were in and of itself distracting at times, and as my senses were on overload, I definitely could tell that this woman sitting next to me, let’s just say at this point almost sitting on top of me, had something Italian for lunch, maybe a salami sandwich.
I was convinced. I was never finishing this chapter.
The ten wooden chairs at each table were positioned in a way that you had enough personal space, if indeed you didn’t keep moving over closer and closer to the person seated next to you. The chairs are somewhat similar to a kitchen chair and very heavy and solid. They’re not creaky, but bulky. The woman next to me had scooted over quite a bit, into my personal space, and I could tell she was leaning a bit forward in her seat and ready at any moment to scoot over a bit closer to me, if that was even possible.
And she did just that. And I wasn’t ready for it.
“Excuse me. What are you doing?” She asked me in a really quiet voice. At least I thought it was quiet, as I had to read her lips because I couldn’t hear her over John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” that was playing in my headphones. Obviously, this was not her first library visit, because she was obeying the first and foremost important rule of any library setting. She also seemed to be what Jerry Seinfeld refers to as a “close talker.” I took my headphones off and put them around my neck and said, “Oh, I’m writing a book. Can I help you with something?” “That’s very inspiring,” she said. “You type incredibly fast. Oh, and what are you writing about?”
I am never finishing this chapter. Amy, just stay in your lane. She’s trying to merge in, and don’t let her. Focus, Amy, focus.
I had one of two things running through my head at this point in time. I could just be curt and brush her off ,or that inner Amy, the one who talks to everyone, the one who completely and utterly relates to Charlie Berens’ depiction of a midwesterner in New York, letting everyone off the subway before you, can appear at any time. Why in the world is she talking to me? Should I just ignore her? Should I put my headphones back on? I’m in the middle of something really important. Doesn’t she realize that I’m writing the next bestseller?
Of course, I opted for the latter. And there it was, right there in the middle of the New York Public Library, a conversation. And you know I don’t like small talk, so I better buckle up, because…I’m never getting this chapter done.
“I’m so sorry if I’m disturbing you, but I don’t come here very often, and haven’t been here in a while. I actually only used to come here with my husband, but he’s not with me anymore. He died,” she said.
I wish I could have seen the look on my face, because I remember her look. She was looking me right in the eyes, and the words “he died” came out of her mouth almost effortlessly, but I could see she was in so much pain.
At that moment I could tell this wasn’t going to be small talk. I needed to grab the tissues from my purse.
I took a moment to pause and gather my thoughts. And I’m forever grateful for that moment and this is why. I could have stayed in my lane. How easy would it have been for me to continue to giggle to myself about the teens making out, and fondling each other at the next table, but still gotten my chapter done. Or I could pause, and let the oncoming traffic make a left turn in front of me and allow me to look up. “Hi, I’m Amy.” I said. I took my headphones off from around my heck, and you could still hear the music playing. I unplugged them. “Hi. I’m Barb, but people call me ‘Babs,’ because my husband says I babble a lot.” Barb, the woman I met in the library that day, had an incredible story. A story that made me realize that we can get stuck in our lanes. She had been married for 58 years. Her husband was a physician, an Oncologist who practiced in New York. Barbara glowed and blushed a little when she told me that one year he was written up as a top doctor in New York, and once he even treated the niece of a celebrity. This incredible woman I had the opportunity to meet, when I finally looked up from my lane, worked two jobs when her husband was in medical school so that they could make their rent and pay their bills. And then she got pregnant. She shared with me how they weren’t ready for a baby, and it wasn’t planned, but it happened for a reason, and it was the biggest blessing of her life, because it was the only child they had, as she had miscarried four times following that pregnancy. “It wasn’t supposed to happen to him,” she said. She couldn’t make sense of her husband’s cancer.
It was in those moments, those few minutes, I forgot about finishing my chapter. I didn’t even notice if the teens that were clearly not studying had left the building. I was focused on learning more about Barb. I needed to listen. I needed to pause and let someone pass in front of my lane.
She told me about the day her husband came home from work and she explained in detail that his face had a worried look. A look she only remembers seeing when their daughter had pneumonia as a baby. He had made an appointment with a physician friend of his because he had felt a little off.
“He had pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Not an easy cancer. No cancer is an easy cancer.”
He fought. He fought hard.
She fought right alongside him.
She told me this journey was the biggest challenge of her life.
She told me that he confided in her that he would keep fighting, but the outcome was that he was not going to recover or get better. He knew this journey well. Barb said in his career, he diagnosed and treated this type of cancer for years as a physician.
When I was so caught up in my lane, and getting annoyed with everyone around me, including the smell of garlic, Barb came to this table in the New York Public Library because she needed to talk. She needed someone to let her in. She told me that when he had appointments for chemotherapy, or follow ups with the doctor, he liked to stop at one particular Italian deli, grab a pastrami on rye sandwich, and make his way to the New York Public library. He would pull up a chair at the long wooden tables.
The same tables where I sat that day…writing.
The same tables that ten people sit at each day. Minding their own business, trying to finish a book, or write a paper, or read a newspaper, or spend time ‘canoodling’, or searching for someone to talk to.
Barb’s husband died eleven months to the day of his diagnosis.
She was forever changed from that experience. I was forever changed from my experience that day in the library.
Our paths crossed for a reason that day. Her breath smelled of salami for a reason that day. I judged that woman before she opened her mouth that day, then got so immersed in the conversation that I don’t even remember when the teens canoodling teens left that day.
At the end of our conversation, Barb put her hand on mine and said, “Please send me a copy of your book when you’re done. I think it’s going to be a best seller.” We exchanged cell phone numbers, and she’s in my contacts as ‘Babs’. I changed it from Barbara to Babs at our second meeting at the Italian deli three blocks from the library. We had a pastrami sandwich, and she babbled on and on.
My story isn’t that unique, because people meet interesting people every day. There are many people who stop and look up, and take time to have conversations with people. But to me, this story is special.
What if I just had gotten up and moved over to the next table where there was a chair open? But I didn’t. I learned an important lesson about judging that day. I am thankful for meeting Babs.