Today at my son's soccer game, I ran into a mom I knew but hadn't seen in a long while. Our daughters used to be friends and had been on the same team in an academic competition at school. Her younger daughter and one of my sons were in preschool together. We knew each other well enough but weren't close friends. Now that I think about it, the last time I spoke with her was about four years ago.
I said hello and asked her how things were. We exchanged brief conversation about nothing important that I can't recall now. I do remember telling her about my foot, how I hurt it and all the details of how it just won't get better, that I just need to deal with it. It could be worse. She said she had seen me at the school with my cane. I told her how self-conscious I am with it around people I already know. I told her how I really need to use a wheelchair when walking on concrete or hard tile and how I can't stand the thought of people asking me what had happened. It makes me uncomfortable.
I asked her if her husband had lost his job; he had confided in me that he was really worried about that. He had done programming work like me. She said, "Oh, he actually did lose his job. I though you knew he passed away three years ago. It was really quick. Stage four cancer."
My mouth dropped and a tear involuntarily left my right eye, the one that I can never seem to control when tears well up. I asked her questions, a thousand questions, too many questions, the kind of questions I just told her I hate to have asked of me. Then I told her how I had a near miss with cancer and how my kids' dad nearly died last year. I shared all of the details with her, trying to commiserate, trying to somehow make her feel like she was not all alone. But she was still alone. And I made her relive it right there on the soccer field.
I don't know if I did the right thing reaching out to her in the way I did it. I suspect no, but I don't know what else I could have said as taken by surprise as I was. I don't know if I made her feel worse - for all I know that could have been the one day that she wasn't thinking about it.
The positive thing I am taking from this day is empathy. I can't imagine having this conversation and not feel for her. My daughter, when I asked her if she knew her former friend's dad had died, was completely surprised too. She said she could now understand why her personality had changed, why she suddenly seemed mean and angry.
After being unable to just shut up and give this woman some peace, I have a new sense of empathy toward those who ask me a million questions about my foot when they otherwise wouldn't include me in the conversation. Clearly I'm being a little hard on them and should realize they too are taken by surprise and are only reflexively trying to be nice, not intrusive.