Just Say Hello

Last month’s issue of Oprah Magazine featured a piece called Just Say Hello. I loved discovering that many other people also experience loneliness, that it’s a natural phenomenon of the times in which we live. It’s not that I feel all alone in the world. Goodness knows I have plenty of love in this life; I know it too. Sometimes I just crave a little more than I’m getting, that’s all. I have visions sometimes (thank goodness, only sometimes) that everyone else but me is enveloped in vast circles of friends with whom, on a routine basis, they have fantastically fabulous coffee dates, dinner parties, and joint family vacations filled with depth and laughter in equal measure. When I recently learned of the term FOMO*, I thought, wait, I’m not the only one who feels this way? It’s been validating and reassuring to know–pun!–that I’m not alone in experiencing loneliness from time to time.
*In case you didn’t know, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Because now everything is expressed in acronyms and abbreviations.

I was instantly on board with the Just Say Hello campaign, and wanted to share a story about a time recently when saying hello made a difference for me. So I’m sharing three.

1. While my 4-year-old son is in preschool three mornings a week, I typically walk to the nearby Whole Foods, where I spend the morning writing in the mezzanine café area. One time I spotted the mother of one of the new boys at my son’s school, seated nearby. After a while, we made eye contact, said hello, and started talking. We already knew that each is an O Mag subscriber. Turns out she’s a writer–nonfiction–who has been employed by various magazines and now generally works freelance. I told her I am writing my first book, that writing had always been my dream. I did it in my not infrequent “but please don’t think I have delusions of grandeur!” manner. It’s something that plagues me, but which I am getting better at overcoming. She, in turn, became an instant supporter of my dream, and the two of us now get together every week for writing dates while our boys are at school. We write together and talk about our writing, but we also talk about parenting, family, life. She has become a dear friend. In fact, we both now have tickets to see Oprah at DC’s Verizon Center in September! This is all happening because one of us said hello.

There are at least two other women who are also regulars there, with whom I routinely take turns watching each other’s things while the other one uses the restroom. We haven’t become friends, and that’s okay. But one of them has referred to me as her Whole Foods work buddy.

2. During another one of my writing mornings, I sat next to an elderly gentleman. I’d never seen him before, but he reminded me an awful lot of my beloved paternal grandfather, who died in 1999. Most people who sit in the café area are either eating a meal, or they have a book, a laptop, their phone, something specific that’s keeping them occupied. This gentleman had a newspaper opened to the sports section, and was looking at it only halfheartedly. He started to look up at me the moment I approached. I said hello. Then I kind of plopped down in the seat next to him and proceeded to my ritual: find a couple of disinfectant wipes to clean up the area where I’m sitting (my family has had a few recent bouts of illness), take out my laptop, iPod, huge bottle of water, and snack, turn on the sound and vibrate on my phone (in case someone really needs to reach me), remove my coat and other things, and put in my earphones. Come to think of it, it must be a pretty ridiculous spectacle–I take a good several minutes to do it all.

I could see him looking up at me from time to time. I would smile back, eventually wondering whether I was bothering him. He then said, “If you need me to move, I can move to make more space for you.” I couldn’t quite tell at first whether that was sarcastic, but I was definitely starting to worry that I was irritating him. I told him no, thank you, that I had plenty of room. Then he pointed at his clothes, smiled at me, and said, “You know, I’m wearing this suit, which I first wore in 1948.” Irritated? No. Friendly? Yes–whew! I said, “Congratulations, sir, that’s quite impressive!” I then went back to my tasks, writing an email, drinking my water, though not without noticing that he kept glancing up at me from time to time. A few minutes later, he got up, and said this to me, “I’ll be leaving now. But I need to tell you this. You have a very beautiful smile.” This moved me intensely. All I could say was, “Wow, sir, thank you. That is so kind of you!” I was also reminded that this wasn’t the first time I was met with the kindness of an elderly stranger at a Whole Foods. The previous time happened when I broke my toe a couple of years ago, the story is HERE.

3. The final story happened in the waiting area of a local hospital. My 4-year-old had dropped “the weight of the world” (this was how my husband referred to his toy globe, in the photo below) on his big toe at an awkward angle. It happened on a Friday, and by Monday morning, he was in a lot of pain, and the bloodied swelling of the toe looked pretty scary. At the hospital, after my sweet little man’s injured toe was drained by three, yes, three orthopedic surgeons, we were sent to the X-Ray Department to determine whether it was broken. It was after 1PM. We had spent the entire morning there. I had exhausted the snacks for my son, and I could sense that he was starving and getting antsy about going home. He had been a trooper, to be sure. I just also knew that his trooperness was fading fast. The only place to sit in the waiting area was next to a woman who was doing needlepoint work. I said hello to her, and to myself said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t get on my case about my child’s behavior if he started to get fussy.

The woman immediately put down her needlepoint, and started talking to me. “What a beautiful, handsome boy you have.” “Thank you,” I said. He and I spoke a little more, in Spanish, and she added, “Oh and he’s bilingual. Good for you for raising him bilingual from such a young age!” “Thank you,” I said again. Then came, “Is he your only child?” Therrrre it is. Okay. It used to be that women asked me, “Is he yours?” They see a Hispanic woman out and about with a baby in the middle of a weekday, and they assume she must be the nanny. I was asked this countless times. These days, I’m most often asked whether he’s an only child.

“Yes, he is. He’s our one and only!” I responded. And then I waited for it. Here it comes. Now she’s going to tell me that children need a sibling, that it is selfish and unnatural to not give my son one. Ah yes, the footloose and fancy-free lifestyle of two parents who, after crunching numbers and considering health and other issues, decide that if they stop at one child, and live very strictly within their means, they can afford for the mother to give up gainful employment to stay home and parent their child full-time in the way that they envision parenting. It just screams selfishness, doesn’t it? Honestly? I have seen people who view the choice to have just one child even more harshly than the choice to remain childless. But I digress.

The woman now got out her bag to put away her needlepoint, and turned to me in earnest. She obviously meant business. I braced for impact. And here’s what she said. “Well, let me tell you something. I had an only child until I was 50. Then I adopted two children. I love them dearly, don’t get me wrong. But let me tell you, I am 84 years old now, and they are still giving me grief. I am exhausted. You’re smart to stick with the only child, honey.”

Whoa! Did not see that one coming. I love it when people surprise me. Can’t wait to keep saying hello!

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