Friday, January 18, 2013

Friends of the Library

The last month has held a heaviness I haven’t felt in ages.  It’s been one of those seasons when it feels as if literally everything in my life is broken.  

I’ve struggled with back pain my entire life, but lately it’s been constant and extreme, putting me on edge and making me a pretty miserable person to live with.  (Note to self: do something nice for Scott to make up for the last two weeks.)

My computer died one day--just flat out turned off and wouldn’t come back on.  Not that I was doing a good job of writing much in my current angry/sad state, but now it wasn’t even possible.

Our car needed some routine maintenance, but when we took it in, we found out we needed some other things done that we weren’t expecting.

Will needed some dental surgery that involved multiple trips to the dentist and hundreds of dollars we hadn’t budgeted.

All of this came on the tail end of a trip home for Scott’s grandma’s funeral, followed by two weeks of walking through the death of the father of one of our best friends.

It just hasn’t been a happy month.

On Thursday I had a conversation with a friend about how each of us deals with stress differently.  I have friends who immediately ask everyone they know to pray. Becky shared that she’s a freak-outer who cries.  I am a self-proclaimed shut-downer.

And it was in that meeting that I realized just how much I had shut down over the last two weeks.  I’d felt overwhelmed with the grief and stress and frustration and physical pain, and I just stopped doing life.  I’ve learned in therapy to cope with the triggers of depression by talking about it instead of mulling it over until it becomes an insurmountable mountain in my head--because the initial stress is nothing compared to the feelings of self-resentment and self-disappointment I feel when I spend my time obsessing over the stress.  And I’ve learned that when I shut down, when I feel like doing nothing, which leads to the obsessive thoughts, when I feel like going back to bed, I can’t.  I just can’t.

And so, I do the laundry.

And I wipe the counters.

And when I feel like I’m not actually doing anything important, I remind myself that what I am not doing is doing nothing, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

So, today, when Ben and I picked up Will from school, I wanted to go home and curl up with a book while the boys played in the other room, but I didn’t.  We went to the gas station and the car wash and the library because washing and putting gas in the car is useful and good.  Going to the library could have been a quick trip to drop stuff off, especially since Ben fell asleep on the way, but something in my gut said to take the boys inside and spend some time there.

And so we went in, and the boys started playing Clifford games on the computer, and I found some new audiobooks for the car.  As stupid as it sounds, going through the motions of doing mundane tasks can sometimes be the difference between happy and sad.

When I returned to the kids area to check on the boys, I found them both still sitting in their chairs, playing word games.  Nearby, I saw an older man of that indistinct age, somewhere between seventy and one hundred three.  He’d sat down on a bench near the boys in that typical waiting husband slouch.  I watched him thumb through the pages of a book and adjust his glasses, heard him clear his throat.  A minute later, a woman with a walker moved toward him, and he looked up and motioned for her to take a seat next to him.

I lingered near the bookshelves pretending to look for a new chapter book series for the boys and listened in on their conversation intently.  Although they rode over on the same shuttle from their retirement community, they had not met previously.  I got the feeling that Floyd had been living at Olympics West much longer than Florence.  He talked about his tablemates at lunch, his regular activities--socials and game nights--and Florence admitted she has never tried any of the scheduled events.  You hear about these stories of octogenarians finding love again--and this must be how it happens.  With a chance meeting during a library outing.  Geriatric serendipity.

Over the course of half an hour, I listened.  Halfway through, I sat down in a chair that backed up against their bench, but they didn’t notice me.  They had launched into full-blown life stories--spouses they’d outlived, children’s careers, grandchildren’s college plans.  

“My son, he has a phone plan.  They added me, but I don’t ever use it,”  Florence said.

“Oh, no--me neither.  I use my phone once in a blue moon,” Floyd said.

“I write on my laptop--I write every day,”  Florence said.

“I do, too.  And I email on my laptop.  I email letters to my kids.  My mother wrote a letter to her mother every day,”  Floyd said.

"That's good.  I don't like to waste time.  That's a good thing to do with your time," Florence said.

At one point, another lady in bright pink pants, (Daisy, I found out later) scooted over with her walker.  She caught my eye and then looked to the seat beside me.  Before I could say anything, Floyd called out to her, “You want to join us?”  As he turned to point to the chairs behind him, he saw me for the first time.  “Oh, there’s someone back there!”

Florence turned, too, then and laughed, “Well, have you been back there this whole time?  Have you been listening to us?”

“For a little while,” I said.  “I can pretend I wasn’t listening if you want.”

Florence, Floyd, and Daisy laughed--too loud for the library.  And kept laughing.  I asked if they had all come together.  Did they live close by?  Floyd answered, “Yes, right up the road.  Just needed to get out today.  Weather’s been so foggy and cold.  Today’s not so bad.”

A woman in her late forties dressed in khaki pants and a polo with a “activities director” name tag walked toward the group.  “You stay here, and I’ll pull the van around in a few minutes.  Or you all can walk to the foyer and wait there.”

As they looked at each other, I said, “Did her name tag say Kathryn Hepburn?”

“Yep!  That’s Kathryn Hepburn--not every day you have a famous lady driving you around town!”  Floyd stood and helped Florence to her feet, then moved toward the front door behind Daisy.

Florence leaned down and held up a book for me to see.  “See what I picked?”

It was an illustrated large print copy of Alice in Wonderland.  She added, “I’ve wanted to read it since I was a little girl.  Never have.  So, now I can read it and die a happy woman.  Good-bye, world!”

She said it like she meant it, smiling like it was the happiest day of her life.

I told the boys it was time to go, anxious to follow my new friends out the front door, to wave good-bye.  In my years of visiting great-grandparents and grandparents, I’ve learned that it is very important to wave good-bye.  I don’t know why, but it’s important.

So, I shuffled the boys toward the door and through the foyer, saying excuse us as we passed Floyd, Florence, and Daisy waiting patiently for their shuttle.  As we walked through, the boys broke free to run down the ramp toward the parking lot, and I heard Daisy say, “Yes, I’m a writer and a singer.”

And then Floyd added, “And a dancer.  Florence, you ought to see her dance!”

I called for the boys to stop and turn around.  As they did, I turned to wave, and Floyd yelled out the door, "Maybe we'll see you around again!"

Will said, "Mom, who is that?"

"That's Floyd," I answered and then took both boys' hands in mine and headed to the car.

He added, "Is he your friend?"

"Something like that."


  1. I love this for two reasons: 1.) I LOVE old people and their stories and 2.) I LOVE eavesdropping. This was a good post. Thanks for being a writer.

  2. Beautiful! I love that you said you'd pretend you hadn't been listening. Cracks me up.

    1. Thanks for reading, April. It's actually kind of amazing how many moments like this occur during my day when I DO listen.