THE LADY IN THE PARK
As she sat alone on the park bench, Eloise folded her arms together to stay warm. She was glad she had worn her sweater because the breeze had picked up slightly and the late afternoon sun was temporarily obscured by clouds. Autumn had always been her favorite season. The heat of summer finally receded and was replaced by a cool crispness that she found invigorating. It was also the calm before the bustle of the holiday season. But this year it didn’t matter. In fact, nothing mattered. This year, for the first time in over five decades, Eloise was alone.
It had been six months since Gerald Barrett, her husband of fifty-two years had suddenly died. Because there had been no indications of poor health, the shock was devastating, and Eloise had not been able to come to terms with the death of the person she loved completely. In an instant her husband, the father of her children and her best friend was ripped from her heart. She was no longer the person she once was.
Day after day she had struggled to go on, but although she searched desperately, she could not find her way out of the darkness that gripped her. The passing of time did nothing to ease the pain, and, in fact, it grew steadily more intense. She missed everything about her husband. The sound of his voice, the smile that he shared so easily with everyone and the strength and stability he provided to the life they shared. She could not accept that it was all gone.
As she tried to clear her mind, she reached into the pocket of her sweater to get a tissue, and felt the slip of paper her physician had given her the day before. It was the phone number of a mental health professional that he wanted her to call. She had crumpled it up into her pocket and forgot about it.
Eloise didn’t feel like talking to anyone. Besides, she was working on her own solution to her problems.
The sound of children laughing in the playground, just visible through the trees, made her momentarily forget about her situation. She thought about how wonderful it would be to be young again and to feel alive. She thought about the innocence of her childhood and all the special moments she had enjoyed while growing up. She thought about the love her family had shared and how she had always been nurtured and supported by her parents. But then suddenly a familiar wave of remorse swept over her as she remembered her present life and the emptiness that consumed her. Unrelenting sadness was now her constant companion. It was with her when she ended each day, and it was waiting for her as she started the next one.
It was the continual feeling of despair that had brought her to this moment.
The pain had to stop. The overwhelming sense of loss and grief had to be dealt with. There were options, but her situation had become so dire that, later in the evening, she was actually considering doing the unthinkable. She had chosen this day, in particular, because it was the six month anniversary of Gerald’s death.
Eloise had now been separated from her husband long enough to know that she did not want to continue living without him.
That was why she had come to the park. She wanted to sit quietly one more time and experience the world that she had once enjoyed. She forced herself to concentrate on the life all around her. She looked at the leaves of the trees that were slowly turning into bursts of breathtaking colors. The clouds had faded away, and she stared up into the blue sky, thinking how it seemed to stretch on forever. She took a moment to breathe in the cool clean air as she watched the birds effortlessly take flight and land. She remembered how, as a little girl, she had often thought that if she only wings, like the blue jays and cardinals she loved, she could fly away from her problems. But, of course, just like everyone else, she had no choice but to confront them.
However, what she faced today was different. The heartbreak, isolation and loneliness of the last six months, had left her unable to cope. That’s why, after much deliberation and personal reflection, she had begun to believe that perhaps she had found her wings in the form multiple prescription pain killers that were waiting on the nightstand by her bed.
Eloise glanced down at her watch. Just five more minutes she thought, and that would be enough. She looked to her left down the sidewalk where people were leisurely walking and a figure appeared with a small dog on a leash. She watched as the person slowly came closer. The individual’s movement was labored, and it seemed as if each step required a significant amount of effort.
Eloise tried not to stare, but, for some reason, her attention was drawn to the walker and the little dog. After a few more seconds she realized she was looking at a woman. It had been difficult to tell for sure because the person was wearing a cap, and her hair was so short it was barely visible. At that moment the woman looked over at Eloise, and without hesitating she broke into a beaming smile.
The smile was the trigger. Eloise now recognized that the woman was Molly Stinson. They had worked together for many years in an office setting. Molly was the first individual they had ever hired with a developmental disability. Because of her successful employment, it opened the door for many more people. Eventually the large business had employed about a dozen men and women with a variety of intellectual and physical challenges.
But the joy of seeing Molly again was tempered by her appearance. She had lost a tremendous amount of weight and her clothes hung so loosely on her that it was startling. Eloise looked closer, and she noticed the deep crevices, far more than just wrinkles, etched into Molly’s face. There were also dark circles under her eyes that stood out in sharp contrast to the paleness of her skin. Her overall appearance was haggard, and it made Eloise feel uncomfortable to see her in such a condition.
But the smile was still the same. Despite whatever had happened, she still possessed a smile that could warm the heart of anyone she shared it with — even someone who felt as lost as Eloise.
Molly left the sidewalk and led her dog over to her. “Mrs. Barrett! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Now Molly, how many years have I been asking you to call me Eloise?”
Molly laughed. “I know. I forgot.”
Eloise looked down at her small dog. “Who is your little friend?”
“This is Dexter. He is twelve years old — that is old for a dog.”
“Yes it is.” Eloise nodded. “But he seems happy to be walking with you.”
“He loves the park. But I’ve never seen you here before. When we came down the sidewalk, I was so surprised to see you sitting here.”
“I come here every once in a while, usually in the morning. How about you?”
“My apartment is just across the street, so I usually walk Dexter here all the time. But lately I haven’t felt like it. But today is different.” Then with great emphasis she declared, “Today is special!”
Eloise couldn’t help but agree with her about that.
However, despite her exuberance, Molly looked weary, and Dexter was panting hard. Eloise patted the bench. “Here, please sit down.”
Molly hesitated for a moment. “Well, okay. But I can’t stay too long. I’ve got to go to an important party tonight.”
“Oh, that is exciting.”
“It is! The party is for me. Because of what happened this morning.” Molly sat down and Dexter stretched out at her feet.
Eloise was curious, but she didn’t want to be too personal. “Is it something you can talk about?”
Molly’s face brightened, and she could hardly contain her excitement. “Yes!” She gulped and blurted out, “This morning I took my last chemo treatment! So, because it’s finally over, my family is throwing me a party, and I’m allowed to invite anyone I want.”
So that was it……cancer. Although shocked, Eloise tried to maintain a steady expression. The chemotherapy explained her shocking appearance and fatigue. She had known Molly for more than a decade, but they had not seen each other since Eloise retired three years ago. Now sixty-eight, she knew that Molly was about five years younger.
Eloise momentarily felt foolish because in all the time she had known Molly she had only considered her in terms of her diagnosis. It had never occurred to her that a person with a developmental disability would be just as likely to have cancer as anyone else. She couldn’t explain why she thought someone who happened to have an intellectual challenge would be exempt from the universal horrors that humanity has to face, but in Eloise’s mind, it only reinforced the truth that we are all the same and that each of us simply do the best we can as we make our way through life.
Suddenly, at that moment, the image of the pills on her nightstand drifted into her mind. Yes, the horrors we all face — until we decide we don’t want to face them anymore.
Her train of thought was interrupted when Molly asked, “So why are you at the park today?”
Eloise tried to hide the emotion that was always near the surface. “It’s a pretty day, and I just wanted to spend some time outdoors.”
“I know what you mean. When I was in the hospital I really missed getting to be outside. My sister took care of Dexter for me because I couldn’t walk him or take care of him.” Molly paused and then said, “But it’s all over now. After they found out I had it, they had to do an operation.” Molly lowered her voice. “I couldn’t tell this to a man, but I can tell it to you. It was breast cancer, and I had a mast — a masta…” Molly hesitated. “The word is hard to remember.”
Eloise gently said, “You had a mastectomy?”
“Yes. that’s it.”
Eloise could only imagine what Molly had gone through.
“I’m so thankful that I made it through everything. There were some days when I didn’t know if I would. Somedays hurt really bad, and when my hair fell out I was so embarrassed. But you have to keep going if you want to live.”
Eloise felt pangs of guilt. Molly had no way of knowing that she was talking about fighting to live to someone who was considering the alternative.
Molly continued. “It’s funny, but I always took for granted getting to come to the park. I just did it without thinking about it. But when I was sick all I wanted to do was to be able to walk with Dexter again. I wanted to be in the fresh air and see and hear everything that happens. I missed it so much. Wanting to get back here is what kept me going.”
Molly reached down and gently patted her little dog on top of the head. “I think he missed it to.”
Eloise smiled. “I think Dexter missed you.”
“I guess so. I sure missed him. I was so afraid I wouldn’t get well, and I would never see him again.”
Softly Eloise said, “Being separated from those we love is very painful.”
They fell silent for a few moments and then Molly looked over at the American flag flying at half-mast. “That was so terrible what happened to those students in that school cafeteria shooting.”
“Yes it was.” The entire nation had been shocked by the brutality of the act that had occurred only days before. Nineteen teenagers had been murdered by a lone gunman.
“I don’t think anyone has the right to end a life.”
Eloise had always thought that as well — and it was something she was struggling with as she tried to make the decision regarding her own life.
“I heard that a couple of the teenagers that were shot had disabilities.”
Once again the realization crossed Eloise’s mind that having an intellectual or physical challenge did not prevent someone from being exposed to all the harsh realities of life. “Yes, I heard the same thing.”
“They had their whole lives ahead of them. How could anyone be so willing to steal that from them?”
“I can’t answer that.” After everything Molly had been through, Eloise didn’t think she needed to point out how unfair life could be.
“Sometimes when I was sick, I wanted to feel sorry for myself — but at least I had the chance to fight. Those kids didn’t get a chance. That boy just shot them, and it was over.”
Eloise shook her head. “Some things just don’t make sense. There are bad moments in life that can’t be explained.” She reached over and patted Molly on the hand. “I’m just glad you fought so hard and that you are here today walking with Dexter.”
“Me too. It was a frightening thing to go through. It was so scary to think I might die.” After a long pause she asked, “Are you afraid to die Mrs. Barrett?”
Eloise closed her eyes for a moment. “Well, there was a time I was afraid of death — but not so much anymore.”
Molly looked at Eloise’s face, and she had the feeling that someone was wrong. Her former coworker seemed different somehow.
She surprised Eloise with her next words. “You know it is amazing that I met you here today, because I thought about you a lot when I was sick.”
“You did? Why me? We haven’t seen each other in several years.”
“I never forgot how nice you were to me when I got the job. At first, not everybody wanted me to be there. They made me feel bad by ignoring me and not talking to me. I think they just wanted me to go away. I felt so out of place that I was miserable. But the worst moment was the morning the lady told everyone that I didn’t belong there because she said people like me shouldn’t be working in public. That hurt so much that I decided to quit on the spot. I was going to give up my dream of having a job. But then you stood up for me. Remember? You told her that I was welcome but that anyone with her attitude should look for another job. Then, in front of the whole office, you invited me to go to lunch with you. You were the Vice President. I couldn’t believe someone as important as you would do a thing like that.”
Eloise smiled. She remembered that morning, but she didn’t think she had done anything special. She just wanted Molly to be treated like everyone else. “I had confidence that you could do the job, and you proved that you could.”
Molly’s voice changed as she spoke. “That was a very important day in my life. You made me feel like I had the right to work in that office. And it helped the other people accept me. I would not have stayed if you hadn’t done that. It changed my life. You were there exactly when I needed you.”
“I was happy to support you.”
“My sister always told me that the right person comes along in your life when you need them most. Do you think that is true?”
Eloise thought for a moment and said, “I suppose that could be the case.”
Their conversation was briefly interrupted as a squirrel suddenly clamored down a tree, noticed them and shot right back up. Dexter perked up and barked halfheartedly, but he was far too comfortable to move and within seconds he was napping again.
Molly’s expression became serious as she worked up the courage to mention something she could sense –but that she couldn’t put her finger on. “I don’t know why, and it’s none of my business, but you seem sad. You are not like the way I remember you.”
Eloise could feel her face grow warm as she blushed with embarrassment.
Molly continued. “I know I’m asking you on the spur of the moment, but is there any way you could come to my party tonight? It might make you happier, and it would mean everything to me. I’m so glad to be alive that I want to share it with people who matter to me. And like I said, I owe you so much. Do you think you could possibly come?”
Eloise was surprised and flattered. “Thank you, Molly. I really appreciate your invitation, and I am overjoyed that you have finished your treatments and that you’re feeling better — but you are right. I’m not feeling that all that happy, so I probably wouldn’t be that much fun to be around.”
Molly persisted, “But isn’t that when you need other people the most? People who care about you?”
Eloise sat quietly while she thought about the two possible evenings she could have. She had come to the park unsure if she wanted to go on. But there was something in the way Molly had struggled to overcome her illness and reach the point where she was thankful for each day that moved Eloise. The emotion she was experiencing surprised her. For six months she had been numb to any kind of positive feeling. But now there was the smallest glimmer of hope that maybe she could find a way to face each day no matter what the future might bring.
Molly looked into the face of the person who had been so kind to her all those years ago. “Maybe if you don’t feel like being happy, you could share my happiness.” She smiled. “I think I have enough for both of us.”
Eloise could feel her eyes filling with tears. Molly had struggled and overcome her disease. She had been tested by both physical and psychological pain, but she endured. She had been scared, but she faced her fear. And, although weary and beaten down by the severest of health challenges, she had survived. Molly now had a true appreciation for just how precious life is — and she wanted to share her joy.
After considering the invitation for another moment or two, the temptation to celebrate her victory over cancer was simply too great to resist. “Okay. I would like to come to the party because I am proud of the way you didn’t give up. You battled and overcame a serious illness, and that certainly deserves to be appreciated.”
Molly was overjoyed. She clapped her hands together, startling Dexter. “Thank you! Thank you! This will make tonight even more special. I don’t know why we met today, but I’m so glad we did!”
Eloise agreed. “You will never know how much it means to me that we saw each other again.”
Molly quickly gave her the information about the time and place for the party and stood up to head home. But then, instead of going to the sidewalk, she turned back to Eloise. “You know, I wasn’t always sure it was worth it.”
Eloise was momentarily confused. “What?”
“When I was really sick, there were days when I didn’t know if I could go on — or if I even wanted to.” She looked intently at Eloise. “For some reason I think you are feeling the same way.”
Eloise fought back a wave of emotion and said, “My husband recently died, and it has been very difficult for me. I came to the park today because I was so sad I didn’t know what to do. That is why seeing you and hearing your story means so much.”
Molly smiled. “Well, I guess that makes us even. You helped me when I needed it, and now maybe I have helped you.”
Molly looked down at Dexter and then back at Eloise. “Would it be alright if I gave you a hug?”
Eloise stood up and held out her arms. She had forgotten how much Molly loved to hug people.
As they embraced, Eloise thought about how she had treated Molly as an equal all those years ago, but now she knew without a doubt that they were equals. They were both women who had faced life’s harshest challenges and, though they had both thought about giving up, they had found the strength and courage to go on.
Molly stepped back and smiled. “Thank you Mrs. Bar… I mean Eloise. I can’t wait to introduce you to everyone at the party tonight.”
Then she turned and headed back down the sidewalk with Dexter trotting alongside. As she slowly made her way home, Molly did not realize what an important role she had played in helping her former coworker resolve her thoughts and feelings.
As Eloise watched them, she considered everything that had just transpired. This day had turned out far different than she could have imagined. When she came to the park, for what she believed could be the last time, she had no idea that a chance encounter would make her reconsider her actions. She marveled at how we often go through our lives without knowing the influence and affect we are having on others.
In this case, an individual, that some people had trouble accepting, had provided another person with the incredible gift of hope. Molly was not trying to be an example or inspire anyone, she was just trying to live as best she could under incredibly difficult circumstances. But that was enough to have a positive impact on the life of someone who had done the same for her, many years before.
Instead of washing down handfuls of pills to end her life, Eloise had decided to go to a party to celebrate life. Of course, she knew that none of this solved any of the issues she was facing, but it did make her believe that if she would continue to fight, things could get better.
But just then, she had a frightening thought. What if she had not encountered Molly in the park today? What if she had not heard her story or witnessed her joy to be alive? What if she had gone home and followed her plan? She shuddered as she realized how easy it is to lose perspective when you are suffering. And she thought about all of those who make a different decision when they can’t find a way out.
She reached into the pocket of her sweater one more time to make sure the phone number was still there. It was. A feeling of relief quickly swept over her because she knew that tomorrow she would make the call and seek the help she needed.
Eloise stood up and took one final look around the beautiful park. Amazingly enough, it did indeed seem that the right person had appeared in her life when she needed them most.