From the Mouths of Strangers

Strangers tell me things.

I’m the woman minding her own business, just scooting by to grab some orange juice off the shelf, who ends up listening to a stranger’s story of their bitter divorce or recent bankruptcy or emergency colon resection.

I don’t know why this is, but some of these “random” encounters have left indelible marks. 

A few summers ago, I was driving out of Fredericksburg, Virginia on a two-lane rural road. My son was in the passenger seat, his eyes closed against the summer sun, as I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught sight of a small car weaving in and out of the line of traffic, hazard lights flashing. We were approaching a hill as the car roared up behind us going about 75 mph. The driver swerved to the left to pass us, crossing the double yellow line, just as an oncoming car crested the hill in the other lane.

I stood up on the brakes as the driver of the speeding car swerved in front of me, nearly sheering off my front bumper. Horns blared, and the oncoming car flew off into the grass to avoid being hit.

The car sped off as we rejoined the flow of traffic, my hands shaking from the close call and from anger. For about twenty minutes, we didn’t see the car, but then the traffic came to a complete halt behind a paving project, and about eight cars ahead of us, there she was: the maniac driver. She was leaning out her car window, looking around frantically. When she spotted us, she turned off her car and got out.

“Roll up your window,” I said to my son as the woman ran towards us. We were in a Jeep and had taken the roof off, so the windows offered very little protection, but it was something.

The woman gestured for me to roll the window down. I shook my head, and she darted in front of the car to the passenger side.

“Leave him alone,” I yelled, unbuckling my seatbelt and opening the door. “You almost killed us! Get away from him.”

“I know,” the woman said, and began to cry. She walked back to my window. “I’m so sorry. I never drive like that. It’s just, my sister died, and I just found out an hour ago, and they’re going to cremate her. If I don’t get to the funeral home before two o’clock, I won’t see her. I’m just trying to see her one last time.”

“I am sorry about your sister, I really am,” I said, too angry to even contemplate what kind of messed-up family dynamic would create such a scenario. “But what you did back there was incredibly stupid.” I pointed towards my son. “That’s my son. You don’t get to endanger him, you just don’t.” At that point, because of a ridiculous inability to see anyone cry without also crying, I started crying, too.

In the middle of a blazing hot construction zone, with the smell of tar burning our eyes and stinging our noses, the woman grabbed my hand and started telling me about her sister. By the time the asphalt truck finally belched onto the shoulder, I understood something about the depth of her grief.

“God be with you,” I said as the cars in front of us cranked back to life. “But please be careful. You’re going to make it in time.”  

She squeezed my hand and ran back to her car. My son and I watched her turn into the funeral home a few miles down the road. It was 1:58 pm.

Fast forward to a restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama, a year later. That same son and I were having lunch with my daughter and a friend, enjoying the spring sunshine on the outdoor patio. The waiter had been fairly chatty throughout the meal, and as he dropped off the check and collected our cups and plates, he asked if we lived in town.

“No,” I told him. “We live about an hour away, in Tennessee.”

“Oh,” he said. “I just moved here and I don’t really know anyone.”

“What brought you here?” I asked, digging in my purse for my wallet. I expected him to say school, or a girl.

But that’s not what he said.

Four months earlier, he’d purchased a car down in Florida, where he was from, and had driven it up to his brother’s house in Memphis on the same day. It was late when he arrived, but he wanted to show off his new car, so he took his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s aunt, out for a ride.

“I got that car up to 140 mph,” he said.

“What the hell for?” I asked.

“I just wanted to see what it could do.”

So he drove, way too fast, down a two-lane road. And in the middle of a Memphis night, he lost control. The car flew into the woods, flipping over and over and over again before becoming wedged on its side between two trees.

The waiter and his brother were severely injured, but they managed to kick the windshield out, and his brother walked back to the road for help.

“His girlfriend’s aunt was screaming in the back seat, really loud,” the waiter said. “But his girlfriend was really quiet.”

“Please tell me they were wearing seatbelts?”

He shook his head no.

“I was in the hospital for four weeks,” he said. “I lost half my stomach, and nine feet of intestines.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” I said. “I can’t even imagine. How is your brother?”

“He’s okay. But his girlfriend is paralyzed from the waist down, and her aunt is dead.”

“And…?” I asked, sensing there was more.

“And I’m adopted, and my parents… well, they want my brother living with them, but not me. Not anymore. And his girlfriend’s family came up to the hospital a few times to try to kill me. So…well, I needed to get out of there, and this seemed like a good place…”

I looked up at the kid’s haunted face. 

“You’ve got to stay strong,” I said. He nodded and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I would have wanted to kill you, too,” I said. “It’s understandable, their anger.”

He nodded again.

“But you’re alive and you’ve got to do your best. Every day. And go to someone – a pastor or priest – and talk about it. Keep talking about it.”

When we left the restaurant and drifted out into the shopping area, I had to fight the urge to go back and hug that kid. His need to be forgiven was written all over his face.

This past Sunday night, my other son and I spent a number of hours in an Emergency Veterinary clinic in North Carolina. While we waited for the vets to assess our dog, I paced the lobby. There was Cheerwine, an NC favorite, in the drink machine. Taped to the side of the snack machine was a list with a message printed at the top: Please check box next to desired products. Someone had drawn fourteen stars next to CHEETOS.

There was also a framed sign on the wall. It said, “In the month of October, you will see our staff wearing silver ribbons for Suicide Prevention month. The suicide rate for veterinarians is four times the national average, and twice the rate of any other medical profession.”

The vet who updated us on our dog’s status was warm and friendly. We had a laugh about the fact that the little “Veterinarian” statues in the office, which commemorated the graduation of a woman named Jennifer, were all figures of men.

“Have they gotten up to date and made some female vet stuff?” I asked, pointing to one of the statues.

“Oh yeh,” she said. “The tables have turned, and now vet schools are predominantly female. Any guy who wants to be a vet has a great shot of getting in because they need men to balance out the classrooms.”

“But what’s with the suicide rate?” I asked. “I read the sign in the lobby. I’m thinking it’s because vets are deeply empathetic people.”

The vet’s eyes welled up with tears and she stared at me for a couple of beats before saying, “Can I give you a hug?”

I nodded, surprised, and she wrapped her arms around me, tight.

They’d lost a vet tech, she told me when she finally let go. The young woman worked in another clinic about two hours away, and had brought her dogs to work and put them in a kennel, finished her shift, and been found in the doctors’ lounge.

“Yesterday I had surgery all day, and I left this at home,” she said, pulling a blue rubber bracelet off her wrist. “But this morning I got out to my car, and something made me go back in and get it. I didn’t know what that was until now. It was because you were coming.”

She held out the blue circle.

“Will you wear this?”

I put the bracelet on my wrist, where it joined a Tau bracelet that was a gift from a shopkeeper in Assisi and the friendship bracelet my daughter made me. The blue bracelet says YOU MATTER in big letters, and #TheFightingBluesForAmanda.

This is the kind of thing that happens to me.

Strangers tell me things.

But maybe it isn’t that those talkative strangers need something from me. Maybe it’s more like the old seafarer in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose penance is to tell the story of how he carelessly shot the albatross and brought ruin to his ship, over and over again.

He doesn’t tell the story because he enjoys repeating it. He tells it because people need to hear it.

Strangers tell me things, and then I tell you. Maybe that’s why.