I am the woman you smiled at today in the Mexican restaurant. You might remember me, only because I was sitting all alone at a table with a magazine and a glass of sangria. I used to be embarrassed to go to a restaurant alone, but now, with five children, I relish the idea of being anywhere by myself.
You were on your way back from the restroom when you passed me. You flashed me such an unguarded smile that I watched you walk all the way back to your table. Unlike me, you were not alone.
I saw you sit down at that long table with all those loud laughing people. I saw you sit right next to the man in the wheelchair with all the blinking lights on the back. It was the blinking lights that drew my eye. I tried not to stare, but I’d never seen anything like it, and like a freaking three-year-old, I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry.
Once I noticed the respirator tubes coming from the back of the wheelchair, I looked away immediately. That’s what we do, right? Gawk at people’s lives and then avert our eyes when we actually see something painful. I’m so embarrassed. I know your life is not a roadside accident, and the last thing I want is to be just another rubbernecker. I hope you didn’t see me.
But I saw you. I saw you get up every few minutes to adjust the tubing and suction out your husband’s mouth. I saw you with your hand on his knee, your eyes on those blinking lights. I saw you help him speak and rearrange bags and cases as the waitress delivered food.
I saw you all leave, struggling with the chair and the tubes and the heavy double doors. And for just a second, you looked like me. You looked like me trying to navigate a triple stroller, a diaper bag, and a million backpacks through a crowded restaurant. And then I started to cry.
Because, of course, you are nothing like me.
Our hands may be equally full, but your load is so much heavier. I’m pushing hope and dreams and expectation through those doors. I’m tired of pushing and I’m wishing they’d just walk. I’m sure you’re tired of pushing too, but you know there will be no walking. I’ve got a long road that will just get easier. You’ve got a short road that will just get harder. I sit alone in a nice restaurant, desperate for a little time alone, while you put your hand on your husband’s knee, desperate for a little more time together.
I don’t know how you do it. God, I bet you’re tired of hearing that. What meaningless drivel.
What I mean to say is, I admire you. I admire that you refuse to be hobbled and homebound by sorrow and adversity. Half the time I allow myself to be hobbled by three healthy preschoolers. I admire your ability, in the midst of all that hardness, to smile so warmly at a stranger.
I admire that you came out to brunch in that crowded restaurant on a Saturday even though you knew the logistics would be a nightmare, even though you knew you’d barely have a chance to sit down and eat your food, even though you knew that people would be looking.
I’m sorry I was one of the people looking, but I’m not sorry that I saw you. You’ve inspired me. And I had to look, in order to see.