Friday, September 17, 2010

The Chance Encounter

Saturday morning was dawning as one of those days that give a little tease of autumn. The sky was a brilliant blue, and we were being spared from the unrelenting humidity of the last three months. Even though I harbor a sincere hatred of my weekend long run, being greeted by sunshine and sixty-five degrees at the front door made it tolerable. I turned on the evil Nike + (Sorry, Lance, but our relationship has grown stale), and began my dreaded ten mile trek.

I headed down the road to an adjacent neighborhood of homes that are a good notch or two (or three) above mine on the socio-economic scale. I love running there for many reasons. One: Wealthier people seem to have the upper hand on the middle class when it comes to ravenous dog containment. I haven’t had a single canine versus weary runner contest yet. (Thank you, Invisible Fence Company!) Two: Wealthier people seem to have fewer yard sales. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have never tried negotiating yard sale traffic on foot against disoriented grandmothers who have been up since four in the morning and are determined to be the first to get their hands on Aunt Edna’s velvet painting of The Last Supper, then you just need to trust me on this one.

The biggest reason I like to run in this upscale neighborhood is so that I can covet the homes I pass. (Yes, I know it is a sin, but so is gluttony, and you only have to go to Wal-Mart on Saturday to witness a sea of sinners breaking that rule.)  I have picked my favorite houses, but I know that unless I come into possession of a winning lottery ticket (or go back to college and make something of myself), they will never be mine. I like to imagine that my favorite house is always clean (unlike mine), never smells like dog poop and fifth grade boy feet (unlike mine), and there is never a moment of discord between its inhabitants (unlike mine). Through a strange twist of fate during my run last Saturday, I found out that maybe Middle-Classville isn't so bad, and that a big house doesn’t always equal happiness.

I was getting into my groove after a couple of miles when I noticed a woman ahead of me. What caught my attention initially was her size: she was impossibly thin. She was walking when I saw her, but judging from her posture, I assumed she was cooling down after a difficult run. She looked beaten down (I can totally sympathize), and I wondered how her frail-looking legs were even supporting her. I was wearing sunglasses which gave me license to stare, so I did.  I just couldn't stop looking at this little pixie down the street.

As we approached each other, I turned down the volume on my iPod in preparation for the obligatory hand wave and “Good morning.” It turned out that our paths crossed directly in front of her home. She walked past, looked right at me, and instead of a smile or nod, she didn’t acknowledge me at all. She simply turned away, and walked slowly up the path to her front door.

Burn!!  It surprised me to be so summarily dismissed by this woman. Runners are a tortured bunch of ragtag soldiers, and we always give props to our comrades. Always. I continued staring at her, taking in the slow, painful-looking gait and the way her tiny shoulders seemed to be too heavy for her to carry. She stared at the ground as she made her way to her house, and then she was gone.

Everything about this brief confrontation bugged me. Why was I snubbed by this lady? Was she sick? Or injured? Did she think I was beneath her, and maybe she could tell that my running shorts are ten years old and that my faded tee shirt came from Target? Maybe she knew I was only a visitor to this well-manicured community and therefore didn't owe me anything.  I continued on with my run, but for some reason, I kept this woman on the front burner.

Two days later, my neighbor received the horrific news that her good friend had taken her own life. Suicide is shocking. It radiates through friends and family in a way that is different from death by cancer or a heart attack or even a car accident for that matter. Those close to the person will always feel some sense of responsibility. There will always be the “what ifs” that linger.  The ones left behind will wonder if there was something they could have done or said to prevent it from happening.  It's a double whammy from hell.

My neighbor shared old photos of the two of them as twenty-somethings smiling with the world in front of them. There was a familiarity about her good friend that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. The pictures made me feel a sort of affection for the woman and sorrow for her loss even though I had never laid eyes on her. Or, so I thought. When the local newspaper ran her obituary with a recent photograph and home address, I realized that I had indeed laid eyes on her, stared at her actually. This was the woman who I encountered on my run Saturday, and in an instant, it all made sense - the heavy shoulders, the blank stare, the look of utter defeat. I had a chance encounter with a person on the brink of suicide and at that moment, the harsh realization was that a hefty bank account and custom window treatments don't take away sadness and depression.   I knew this in my head, but I had just seen it in the flesh.

It’s possible that she didn’t even see me that morning despite the fact that we were nearly face to face. She was fighting demons that would compel her to end her own life two days later, so it's obvious that her outlook was clouded.   It seems so trite of me now to be upset over being snubbed by a stranger when in reality, this woman was literally on the edge and just barely hanging on by her fingertips.  Maybe next time I won't be so quick to judge. Maybe next time I will have a little more compassion for the distracted person ahead of me at the ATM because they, too, might be struggling to find a reason to stick around on this Earth.  And, maybe this time...I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer that this friend, this mother and wife, found her peace at last.


  1. Oh my goodness how sad! I guess we should all be a bit more greatful. Money really can't buy happiness.

  2. Lynda,
    Thanks for sharing... Wow this one hit me. Perspective always brings a different view, your view, her view of the problems that were so large she could see noting else. Our view from far away with your brief encounter. Normally you make me smile or laugh... today you are making me think. Thanks again.


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