Austin is a pretty chill kid, unfazed by a lot of the mini-dramas of childhood. He doesn’t get anxious about schoolwork or whether he’ll get picked to play first base, and he never seems to worry much about the things that sometimes bother other kids. Thank goodness, because as long as Covid lasts, he has to go into the orthodontist’s office without me. He does it with little fanfare, and I sit outside the office on the sidewalk each time.
Last week, he had an appointment to get braces on his top teeth, which apparently takes forever. I was working on my phone, answering emails from students and trying to tweak a lesson for the next day. I wasn’t paying much attention to the people passing me on the sidewalk, but then I heard a little yelp.
It was an old woman, leaning on the chair that was set up across the sidewalk from me. She didn’t look good.
“Are you okay?” I asked, which I accepted was a somewhat stupid question. She was clearly not okay.
“I just need to sit down, I think,” she said. “Do you think it would be okay if I sat here?”
I told her she certainly could sit there, as anyone else who was going to be waiting was likely to be a child who could easily stand. I put my phone down, and after she caught her breath, we chatted about nothing in particular. Initially, I worried that she was not fully aware of her surroundings, but once she was physically better, it was clear that she was totally aware and also whip-smart.
We talked about the pandemic and the strangeness of waiting outside the orthodontist’s office and we talked about the people who passed us on the street. I asked her about where she was living, and about her family. She asked about mine and I told her about my teaching job. And then, as if on cue, one of my students showed up at the orthodontist’s door!
I talked to my student about the work she’d done over election week, and then she went inside. The old woman looked at me and said, “I was a teacher, too.” She patted the side of her bag, showing a well-known boarding school logo on the side. “I taught English,” she said. “It was a really good job and I learned a lot from the students. Though I guess I don’t need to tell that to you.”
I smiled. We talked about teaching for a long time, and she wistfully recalled her earlier life. Her husband died three years ago, she told me, and she really missed him.
“I know this is probably surprising,” I said, “but my husband also died a few years ago. He was young, so there were a lot of hard parts about my life, especially the first year. But I think some other stuff was probably not too different from your life.”
She smiled, and we offered our condolences to each other. Then we sat there in silence for a while. “I have a boyfriend now,” I said, using the juvenile term. (I wasn’t sure whether women in their 80s ever used the term “partner” but it still felt funny to call Chris my boyfriend. He just feels like so much more than that. But I digress.) “It’s been a pretty amazing experience, loving him,” I said, again using a phrase that felt incomplete. “I’ve been lucky.”
She smiled. “That’s lovely,” she said, and then sat there quietly, clearly thinking of what to say next.
“I’ve thought about trying to find another love,” she said. “I’m almost 80, but I’ve imagined that maybe there’s someone else out there for me.” She paused. “But I don’t know if I want that, really.”
“I think everyone’s choices and timelines are different,” I said, “and I’m sure it’s really hard to think about finding someone else when you were with your husband for many decades.” Her eyes met mine, and I continued. “But if you decide you a new love, I think it can happen for you.”
“I think,” she said, trying to find the right words, “I just need to be quiet for a while, and listen to what my internal voice says.”
I agreed, and we sat there for a while, enjoying the sunshine. Soon thereafter, Austin came bounding out, excited about his new braces. It was time to leave.
We said goodbye. She was feeling fine and would be headed home after she sat in the sun for a while to warm up. As we hopped on our bikes and headed back home, I glanced back. She was sitting in the sun, looking up at the clouds.
Maybe she was listening to her internal voice.