Life, Death and a Single-Serving Friendship.
I was returning from my visit to my new grandson and his parents in Texas, riding the Amtrak train back home to New Mexico.
My eyes gleamed with fresh memories of my grandson’s wide-eyed delight at the fresh wonder of each new day. Already I missed his happy bouncing in his baby seat, and the image of him falling asleep in his mama’s arms in the bathtub, so trusting of life.
As I stepped up the tightly winding stairs to the upper level, I looked forward to sprawling out across two seats as I had done when riding the train before.
But there, in the seat next to the one assigned to me, I saw ample evidence of a seat mate: a worn grey canvas bag on the floor by the window seat (my favorite side!) and a comfortable looking black-with-white-polka-dot miniature comforter, the perfect size for someone confined to a single train seat.
My first feeling was of disappointment, even resentment of my absent seat mate, the second of guilt. Clearly she or he had been enjoying the extra space already, and I was going to ruin that.
Soon she appeared, slim and copper-skinned. As I jumped up to let her into her seat, I apologized for my existence there and stepped into the aisle. “I’ll move as soon as there’s room,” I promised.
She grinned broadly, yet shyly, and said, “No, no, it’s okay!”
I vowed to myself to at least give her some psychological space and brought out my book and started to read, signaling to her that I wouldn’t be bothering her by insisting on superficial chit-chat. Small-framed, she curled up in her tiny spot like a hibernating squirrel, bundled in her little comforter.
I read, she slept.
She stirred, shifting her position. I noticed that she hadn’t raised the leg rest.
“There’s a leg rest you can use.”
She peered blankly over the edge of her blanket, so I reached below her seat and pulled the leg rest up and forward. Her eyes popped in delighted surprise. “I didn’t know that was there!” she exclaimed in a sleep-graveled voice. I laughed, remembering how amazed and happy I was when I made the same discovery.
She rearranged herself, again mumbling self-consciously, “I’m just so tired…”
I looked at her, nodding once silently.
She continued, “I have cancer.”
My antennae popped up. Giving her my full attention but not wanting to be intrusive, I said, “I see.”
“Yeah. I’m going back home, to my mom’s in Santa Barbara.” **
Then came more, bit by bit. She had been staying at her father’s house in Temple, Texas, but he had sent her packing, putting her on the train at one in the morning because, she said, she had commented on the fact that he was dating three different women simultaneously.
“Well, that’s good you’ll be staying with your mom then, right?”
She curled up again and I finished the last few pages of my book, Enchanted, by Orson Scott Card, a magical adventure featuring time-traveling lovers. I curled up for a nap too — no one sleeps well in the house of an infant.
When we were both awake again, she told me more. She’s 48 years old, with three kids and 5 grandkids. She said that the oldest grandchild was 16. Doing the math, I figured that she became a grandmother at 32, meaning that she and her daughter might have both been 16 when they had their first children. I didn’t want to think that either one had been even younger, though of course that could have been true.
Digging in my carefully packed insulated lunch bag, I produced a container of fresh cherries, which I set on her tray. She beamed happily and exclaimed “I love cherries!” and gobbled several down.
I couldn’t stop grinning, to see her so happy at this simple pleasure.
“I need to get something to drink,” she said. Then added matter-of-factly, “I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been going to meetings but… this is just too much.”
When she stepped into the aisle to find the snack bar, the sight of her bony bottom outlined inside loose jeans told me that what had first registered as athletic leanness was actually the beginnings of emaciation. Her freshly styled auburn hair, smooth skin and white dress sandals had contributed to the illusion of health.
She returned shortly, toting a tiny bottle of wine which she sipped lovingly while continuing on the cherries.
“My family is going to try to make me get chemo, but I don’t want to,” her eyes shining with fear and sadness. “I’ve already had three surgeries. On my liver,” she added, her voice cracking in anguish.
I asked, “What do the doctors say?”
She shook her head, looking down.
“They can’t make you take any treatment you don’t want. Just tell the doctor you are refusing treatment,” I advised.
“I just want to go. I’m so tired.” Her voice dripped with exhaustion, shoulders hunched and sagging with infinite weight. She glanced up, meeting my eyes. “I’m suicidal,” she said plainly.
She held out both her arms, wrists up, and I saw evidence that she had wanted to go long before the cancer. I nodded, not knowing what to say.
We looked out the window together at the endless junkyards and run-down shacks as the train slowed nearly to a stop entering El Paso.
“I don’t want to go through all that,” she continued, explaining why she didn’t want chemotherapy.
“What about staying in hospice?” I asked, stepping onto thin ice.
She nodded, eyes tearing up suddenly. She looked back out the window. “Yes. They would take me at hospice.”
“So, it’s not going to be that long, huh?”
She shook her head, still looking out the window. We watched, but didn’t see, the scenery go by, until we both realized simultaneously that an old, very long, cemetery had been passing in front of us for some time, causing her to bark in laughter. Not a bitter laugh, but one of synchronistic surprise, like a child seeing a jack-in-the-box for the first time. I couldn’t help but guffaw once too.
Sometimes grim humor is just the thing, and it tends to be contagious.
“Perfect,” she said, shaking her head.
The train’s announcer had been telling us about the lady who sells burritos at the El Paso stop, and we both agreed that a burrito would be a good thing, because when isn’t a burrito a good thing?
After a lifetime of slow entry into El Paso, we arrived at the station. As we stepped onto the radiating pavement, she offered me a cigarette, which I took. I leaned inside the narrow rim of shade against the stone-block wall, hiding from the smoldering sun, smoking while she hunted inside the station for the famed “burrito lady.”
The train released far more passengers than it took on in El Paso, so when we boarded again, there were many empty seats.
I pulled my bags from the floor and set them in the two seats across the aisle from my single-serving friend. She smiled and we chatted momentarily across the new gulf between us before she curled, less tightly now, across both her seats, wiggling her feet in an effort to coax the polka-dot blanket over them both.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that she kept drifting off, then startling as her feet slid off the ledge of the aisle seat. She hadn’t pulled up the leg rest on that side, so I reached over quietly and slowly raised it. She finally slept soundly.
Deming was approaching when I remembered that she had complained about losing her book. It would be many hours before she made it to the stop in Santa Barbara. I pulled Enchanted from my bag and wrote just inside the cover, “I wish you the best on your journey home.”
I set it on her tray table and stepped again into the desert sunlight.
* With a nod to Chuck Palahnuik and ‘Fight Club’
** Details are changed to protect her privacy
Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along, and is endlessly fascinated by the many forms of human relationship. She is currently working on an eco-punk novel set in southwestern New Mexico.