Strange Days Indeed

The other day when I was out for my daily walk and standing at a stop sign waiting to cross the street, a van that I didn’t recognize came to a halt beside me.  I looked inside to see who was driving and saw a former neighbor, K, waving at me.  I always liked K when she lived here, but lost touch with her after she moved away five years ago.  So when I saw her, it pleased me.

She rolled down her window and we started to talk.  Or rather, she started to talk.

She told me she was in town on business, and had borrowed this van to drive out to see her old stomping ground.

She brought me up-to-date on her kids.

She explained why her husband’s job had taken them first to the east coast, and then to the middle of the midwest.  She talked about the houses she’d lived in   since she moved;  and how she missed this neighborhood and her old house here.

She knew the whereabouts of a few of the families who used to live on the street back when she was here, and told me about them.  I updated her about the families who were still here– and about the neighborhood curmudgeon’s latest issues.

Eventually the conversation turned to a more personal tone, and I took the opportunity to tell her that I thought her new hair style and color really flattered her.  She’d gone from a long dark brown layered style to a short golden blonde bob.  She looked great.

And then the conversation got strange.

She laughed and said, “Thanks.  I decided that I wanted to die a blonde.”

At first, I thought she said: “I decided to dye it blonde.”  But slowly it registered in my brain what she had said;  and that she was waiting for me to respond.

Hoping that I had misheard her, but fearing that I had not, I said: “Oh, that won’t be for a while.”

But I was wrong.

Come to find out, she has terminal breast cancer with a couple of years left to live.  The change in hairstyle happened after many rounds of chemo during which time her hair fell out and then grew back gray.  So she decided to take advantage of the situation, and become a blonde.

Being totally stunned and at a loss for words, I said a few trite, encouraging things to her;  but I imagine that she’d heard these sorts of platitudes many times over.  So I just let her continue to talk.  There was nothing much that I could add to the conversation.

She talked a bit more about the details of her disease, and how her faith in Jesus was helping her cope.  She talked about how she wasn’t really upset anymore about the unfairness of this situation, and that she was just doing what she wanted to do all the time now.

Then she looked at her watch, realized what time it was, and started to say good-bye to me.  I asked her for her email address, but she said she couldn’t remember it.  I told her mine, but I doubt that she really cared.  This was to be our last conversation, I realized.

With that, she thanked me for talking with her and drove away.  Drifting off in that casual way of suburban acquaintances.  Just gone one day, never to be heard from again.

Leaving me standing by a stop sign– sad, confused, numb.  No longer interested in going for a walk.  No longer sure about much of anything.

13 thoughts on “Strange Days Indeed”

  1. I know that this is wordy and I apologize. But it was such an unexpected chance meeting with a bizarre twist, that I felt like I wanted to put it in the blog. So here it is. Make of it what you will.

  2. wow – what is the best way to broach such a subject in what sounds like a chance meeting. you may never know how much just talking to her meant at that very moment but i suspect it meant a great deal to her. sounds like she has an inner peace about the situation and for that brief moment, in just the simple exchange of “catching” up, she felt normal. i guess inevitably it had to come out though. makes you realize just how precious every second is.

  3. Lori, I think that you’re right that K did get to remember what a normal conversation was like. But when I complimented her new hairstyle, I had no idea that I’d wandered into an end-of-life discussion. Talk about being caught off guard. Very strange.

  4. I’ve done that before too; they make some very nice looking wigs these days. I’ve also been on the other end where someone has turned the conversation such that I can’t avoid saying that my husband has cancer, unless I lie. I would spend lots of time in reflection over that conversation; obviously she was saying goodbye to her past before moving on. My husband and I haven’t had the guts to talk about what would be or is on his “bucket list.”

  5. I remember reading this about life; living is like licking honey off a thorn. I don’t know who said this but it seems appropriate to quote them after reading your post. I too find it upsetting when life unexpectedly smacks you upside the head and that is surely what happened to you the other day. Hoping you are feeling a little more centered today.

  6. Margaret, you’re right that she was saying good-bye to her past– and I just happened to be out there in it as she drove by. The whole thing was weird. Not at all what I had in mind when I went out into the sunshine for a lovely walk.

  7. Oh my god…going in, I thought this post was going to be about one thing (her talking, not letting you get a word in, maybe) and then it threw me for a total loop. Just like the conversation threw you for a complete loop, I’m sure.

    But you summed it all up so well…the confusion, the things that come out of our mouths when we have no idea what to say beyond, “I’m so sorry to hear this” or “I admire your strength”. Wow. I’m glad you met her, though I’m sure it was a total downer. But a little wake up call and knowing what is going on with those around us is often a good thing, even if not pleasant.

  8. And thinking about the hair thing reminded me of something my mom read in one of her over-eaters support groups. One of the woman said how horrid it was that people kept complimenting her mother on her weight loss, how healthy and great she looked, when of course, she was losing weight due to cancer. Ugh. I don’t think I’ll ever mention someone’s weight again, unless I know they’ve been working at it and would enjoy the encouragement.

  9. J, you summed it up perfectly: “thrown for a loop.” It was a reminder to appreciate good health while you have it. But, oh!, what a strange conversation.

    My mother died of cancer and people did the same thing to her– complimenting her on how svelte she was. She would just shrug and smile. From that experience, (like you) I learned to NEVER mention any weight loss or gain unless I knew all of the facts about it.

    But complimenting someone’s hairstyle– which looked so good on her– I thought that was a safe place to go. Now I’m not so sure about that.

  10. Go for a walk and end up hearing about of end-of-life story. How surreal. I guess it just goes to show that life (and death) shows up in the most unexpected places.

    As for compliments, speaking from personal experience (times three), I would think that it’s always safe ground to compliment a new mom on how good she looks…even if she doesn’t. You usually can’t go wrong on that one, and she will almost always appreciate it (even if those dark circles under her eyes don’t show it).

  11. Stephanie, it was surreal. That’s a great way to describe it.

    Love the advice on what to say to a new mom. You are a very astute woman… who looks just wonderful every time I see you! ;-)

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