The parking garage attendant for my downtown office building sees me. And I don’t just mean in a literal sense – like she sees my shell passing by each day… I’m fairly certain she sees straight into my soul.
I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know her name (she looks and acts like a Mary, so that’s what I’ll call her). She doesn’t know my name either though.
She’s ~60 years old – a kindred spirit, with a warm smile. She’s a short, thin, black woman, with shoulder length gray hair and blunt cut bangs, and she wears glasses.
Each morning, for maybe the last two years, I’d quickly round the corner, running late per usual, roll down my window, and pull out my access key to open the gate, at which point Mary, who’d be perched in the little fee booth thing, would see me and yell, “Heyyyyy girrrrrl!” and wave.
I’d smile, wave back at her, and yell, “Heyyyyy!” as I’d go on my way.
To my surprise, she noticed my pregnancy fairly quickly. Many others hadn’t noticed, but that Mary – she’s an observant one. She noticed, even though she only ever saw me quickly drive past in my car.
She stopped me one day and asked, “When are you due?! Girl or boy? Is this your first?”
I smiled and told her, “September 4! It’s a boy! And, yes, it’s our first!”
“Congrats, girrrrrl!” she exclaimed, smiling warmly.
From then on, she’d check in frequently with me, asking me how the baby was doing. I could tell she was excited for me, and that she’d be thrilled to meet Matthew if, someday, I’d bring him in for an office visit.
She was so nice that, this year, I thought I’d get her a Christmas card, along with some kind of generous gift card, because her smile and friendly attitude always brightened my day. And, I thought, maybe parking garage attendants don’t usually receive many kind gestures like that.
So just a couple weeks after Matthew died, I thought of Mary… Mark took responsibility for informing neighbors and various acquaintances of Matthew’s death, but I’d have to break the news to Mary. Mary’s employed by the city, so she wasn’t included on the company-wide email. And no one knew of our friendly relationship… So no one would tell her for me – I’d be telling Mary. I dreaded the day.
I concocted a scenario in my mind of how this might play out… I’d drive into work my first day back, and there’d be Mary sitting in the little fee booth thing. My heart would drop into my stomach, and I’d pray she didn’t see me, but of course she’d look over, see me, and yell, “You had the baby! Congratulations! How’s he doing!?!?”
I’d answer, “He died,” burst into tears, and drive away as quickly as possible.
I’d be medusa to her too. She’d be weirded out and never speak to me again. We’d pretend we never used to greet each other. She’d forever take pity on me – that poor, pathetic girl.
I was granted eight weeks of maternity leave, but after about four weeks, I started to ease my way back into part time work. I started really slowly, just coming in a couple days a week to meet AB and JVB for lunch. Every so often, after lunch, I’d go up to my office for just a few hours. Sometimes I’d complete tasks, and sometimes I’d just cry as I held Matthew’s picture. I’d leave whenever I decided I’d had enough.
This continued for about three weeks. And never once did I run into Mary. I was relieved – I thought maybe I’d lucked out, and I’d, somehow, never see her again. Maybe she’d taken another job. I’d be off the hook, never having to tell her my awful news.
But, eventually, the day arrived…
Similar to most other days, I was meeting AB and JVB for lunch. However, this time, I was running late… Usually I’d arrive to the parking garage at around 12:30pm, text AB and JVB to let them know to meet me outside, and I’d go stand in the alley, where no one could see me, to wait for them. When I spotted them exit the building, I’d step out, and then we’d walk to lunch.
This time, it was closer to 1:00pm… So AB and JVB were already outside, at the foot of the parking garage. I had just parked, so I texted them to let them know I was finally coming down. I raced down the seven flights of stairs, rounded the corner, and spotted AB and JVB – standing with Mary.
My heart skipped a beat – this was it.
Mary immediately recognized me. She waved as her eyes lit up. “Oh, there she is!” she exclaimed.
AB and JVB looked at me knowingly.
“Heyyyyy girrrrrl!” Mary took a few steps towards me, “How’s the baby?!?!” she asked excitedly.
“Well, sadly, he passed away…” I answered. Much to my surprise, I didn’t cry. I just stated it as fact. I squinted at her – it was a hot, bright, sunshiny August day. I started to explain, “It was unexpected, a horrible accident…”
She didn’t give me time. Her expression changed from excited to horrified. Tears filled her eyes. She turned away.
“Oh my God!!!,” she wailed, “Oh my God! Nooooo! Oh my God! Lord!!!” She turned back to me, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Oh my God! A while back, my nephew was shot dead! Gunned down! He was only 15! And my brother – he was shot too. In a drive by. Oh my God!!!” she yelled. The anguish in her voice was now palpable, and onlookers were probably wondering what the eff was going on…
“That’s so terrible,” AB sympathized.
JVB and I nodded in agreement.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Mary whispered, “You take care now.”
“Thank you so much,” I answered quietly.
We turned away and headed to lunch. I told AB and JVB how surprised I was I’d just told someone about Matthew without crying. “I guess in that moment, it was just a fact – something I was just able to say,” I explained.
“We’re proud of your strength,” AB said.
“Yeah…” I answered.
The topic of conversation changed, and AB and JVB were now walking ahead of me, carrying on per usual. I was only half listening – I was still thinking about Mary. The way the scenario played out wasn’t what I’d envisioned. I mean, I’d expected condolences, but the pain in her eyes, in her voice, was so raw. And it seemed to come from some place deeper than I’d seen before.
Her reaction was different. It wasn’t, “I’m sorry. I have no words. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”
Instead, I could tell she’d just tried to imagine it – losing her own child. And maybe, based on her family experiences, it wasn’t the first time she’d tried. And I could tell her heart shattered into a million pieces hearing my news – she seemed totally gutted.
And I appreciated it – my encounter with Mary, who tried to imagine. She went there – to my dark place, and back to the dark place of those others in her family. She didn’t shy away. And I loved her for it.
I also think, though I didn’t realize it at the time, that based on her experiences, Mary knew the sort of long term devastation awaiting me. I think her heart broke, not only for my loss of Matthew, but because she immediately knew how much this would change me. She’d seen how losing a child had affected some of those closest to her, and in that moment, she knew I’d never be the same. I think some others, intellectually, know this same thing, but Mary had seen it all before.
It’s been about three months since Matthew died. Now, it seems, on a daily basis, someone implies I should be “doing better”.
When I explain to co-workers it’s still hard for me to concentrate, most raise their eyebrows and ask, “Oh, really?!” as if they’re surprised.
When co-workers enthusiastically ask me how I’m doing, and I reply, “It’s been really hard, but I’m hanging in there,” most imply that sort of answer was unexpected.
Some imply I could make a greater effort to open the door to my office.
Some imply I could attend large social gatherings, or that I’ll be ready to celebrate the holidays…
The list goes on.
Mary is one of the few who sees straight into my soul. It’s evident to me each morning when I enter the parking garage. The “Heyyyyy girrrrrl!” exchange has been replaced by the knowing looks we trade when I stop to open the gate. I gaze over at her with a certain gloom in my eyes. Her eyes fill with a similar gloom. She gives me a gentle nod and a half smile. It’s as if, with her nod, she’s saying “I know you’re still suffering.”
I return her nod and half smile, as if to confirm her thoughts, as I drive away.
I can just tell she knows. She knows the depths of my sorrow – how broken I still am. And she knows I’m forever broken. She knows without having to ask and without me having to tell her. She just knows.
And I still want to get her that Christmas gift this year… Because some nights, as I toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, I think about Mary, and how she’s one of the few who sees me – who sees my ongoing, silent suffering.
Did/do you find comfort from an unexpected source? Leave a comment. Or buy that person a Christmas present this year.