A sympathetic ear

I had an interesting experience today.  I was going to change it to a story told in the third person with made up names and such, but that sounded too complicated and I’d probably mess it up.  I am not looking for compliments or kudos, and I really don’t want to bring attention to the other party, so hopefully anyone that may know the person is not reading this.  It just seems like something that may come up for others and it doesn’t have to be awkward.

I seem to be just about equally introverted and extroverted.  Okay, so maybe I’m more of an introvert, but I bust out of that shell semi-often and am perfectly comfortable with it.  Plus, I can totally fake it when I need to.  Anyway, today at lunch I went to a fast-food restaurant, armed with a magazine and a plan to ignore just about anyone I might run into.  It would have to be a chance encounter with a favorite person that I hadn’t seen in ages to tear me away from this perfect 45 minutes spent reading and avoiding.

I placed my order and chose a table and thought I recognized an older lady that I used to see at her job when I was in high school many years ago.  I passed by again to get my drink, and went back and forth in my mind about whether it was who I thought it was.  The quickest way to answer that question would be to ask her.  She could say no, and I’d give the friendly “oh, sorry, you look a lot like her” line and go back to my own business.  I should add here that I didn’t even know this person back in the day, so normally I wouldn’t consider saying anything.  She was a familiar face in a small town.  Not a big mystery and who cares.

However, I happen to know that this particular lady’s son was sent to prison about nine years ago and her grandchildren were ordered to live with the in-laws and since then her husband has died. That’s quite a stack of adversity for one petite little lady to have to carry around.  She looked put together but with a touch of weariness.

So I asked her.  And it was who I thought it was.  And she talked my ear off.  And I let her.
I had every intention of saying hello, mentioning a mutual friend, and wishing her well as I went back to my own table and my solo lunch break.  I ended up bringing my food to her table in the nanosecond that existed between her sentences.*

Do you know how lonely she must be?  I’m sure she has friends, but a lot fewer than she had 15-20 years ago.  Her husband is dead.  Her daughter and her family live hours away.  Her son is in prison.  Her grandkids aren’t here and don’t keep in touch.  She retired from a job she worked at for 34 years and works part time for a little income now.

By the way, her son had a blockbuster trial, so it’s not like she could keep it on the down low.  She said her workmates (at the time) were fairly supportive.  She said her church congregation was not.  How sad is that…….you’d think it would be the other way around.  (Or ideally, everyone would be supportive.)  She thinks her son is innocent, which is understandable for a mom.  I don’t know if he is or not, but it doesn’t matter to me.  I was talking to his mom, who is an elderly woman who didn’t commit any crimes and I’m pretty sure didn’t encourage her son to carry out any heinous acts.  His life happened and affected hers in a big way.

We talked about her son a lot.  It was as natural as if he were working as a real estate salesman or teaching algebra or waiting tables.  She told me how and what he’s doing.  I asked questions and she answered them.  It was as though she had been waiting to have a normal conversation with someone about her kids.

I’m a question-asker.  I try not to go too far or get insanely deeply personal, but I’m interested in people and their lives.  It’s kind of a weird trait, maybe – I’m curious, but not nosy.  I don’t want information for gossip’s sake, but to keep the conversation going and to learn why people are who they are.  I learned from a fifth grader years ago that it’s okay to ask questions.  She asked a person with leg braces and forearm crutches what happened.  I thought I was going to DIE.  He simply responded with what happened (polio) and we all went on with whatever we were doing.  I’m also very open with my own information, so it doesn’t bother me to answer questions.  You have to feel people out, though.  Sometimes they really don’t want to talk about a particular topic or share much in general, so you have to keep it light.

I feel like I may have written about this before, but it keeps happening, so maybe it’s important.  Introduce yourself.  Let the person talk.  It might be therapeutic for them or the highlight of their week.**  Maybe they work hard and go home and have a tv dinner and watch Dancing with the Stars and go to bed and get up the next day and do it again, without feeling like there’s anyone for miles around who would even know if they didn’t wake up in the morning.

Which would be the more comfortable situation………
1.  Person walks in and everyone stops talking and starts acting weird and fumbling and looking away.
2.  Person walks in and people give her/him hugs and ask how they’ve been, how work is going, etc.

Just pretend for a second that nothing out of the ordinary happened and greet your friend as you always have.  That can be the ice-breaker, and then the conversation and the interactions can go where they will.  I can only imagine that all a person who has endured some epic difficulties wants is a minute of normalcy.  If it has been years since whatever happened, then it really should be back to business as usual.  If you can’t manage to keep it relaxed immediately following, then at least you can take some time to consciously get it together after some time has passed.

If the person’s loved one has died, say that you are sorry for their loss and ask how they’re holding up.  Again, not awkward.  They’re still a human, standing in front of you, wanting a normal interaction.  If the loss is fresh, I wouldn’t go into too much digging and sticking your finger in the wound, but if some time has passed, ask what that person was like.  Say their name.  They existed and are still carried in hearts and minds.

Let the other person pave the way.  Keep your mind sharp and observe.  If they want to talk about it, you’ll know it, like the lady I visited with today.  We each came away from it with a new acquaintance, and maybe a friend.  If you have a choice, feel free to approach if you’re moved to do so.  If you don’t have a choice and a conversation is unavoidable, stay cool and act like you are comfortable.  You’ve got this.


*She was not in any way annoying, looking for attention, sympathy, or anything else that might make me regret starting a conversation.  It was all very matter-of-fact on both of our parts and I just got the feeling that it was nice for her to be able to share.

**I’m not suggesting this might be done daily or anything.  That would be exhausting.

Awkward convo